Burke's turnaround year earns reward
Outfielder among Cubs Minor Leaguers to travel to Dominican
CHICAGO -- The Cubs have had success converting position players to pitchers, such as Randy Wells and Carlos Marmol, but Kyler Burke showed he was better left alone.
Burke, acquired in June 2007 from San Diego in the Michael Barrett deal, began this year with a less than impressive .233 average after three Minor League seasons. He was assigned to Class A Peoria, but there was some talk among the Cubs coaches and player development staff about switching Burke from outfielder to pitcher if he didn't show improvement at the plate.
Apparently, that was all Burke needed to hear.
This year, he batted .303 with 43 doubles, three triples, 15 homers, 89 RBIs and a .405 on-base percentage, and was named the Cubs' 2009 Minor League Player of the Year. Burke led the Midwest League in doubles, was second in on-base percentage and extra-base hits (61), third in runs scored and slugging percentage, and tied for fifth in RBIs and sixth in batting average.
There's no more talk about pitching.
"I had struggled a little the year before," Burke said of his .206 average at Peoria in 2008, which prompted him to be sent back to low Class A Boise. "I had a pretty good arm. It was one of those things where I said, 'Hey, you've got to start hitting or move to the mound.' I had to make up my mind.
"I got my mind right," he said. "It was time to put up or shut up. I said, 'You know what, if it doesn't work, I've got a chance to pitch,' and that took some of the pressure off me a little bit. I used it as motivation, and took it and had a good year, and here I am now."
Having already participated in the Cubs' instructional league in Mesa, Ariz., which wrapped up Oct. 17, on Tuesday, he will travel to the Dominican Republic, along with seven other Cubs Minor Leaguers, for another month of baseball.
We'll get to the trip in a minute. As for his near-conversion, Burke, 21, said he took nothing but positives from the conversion talk.
"It was almost a good thing," he said. "If it didn't work out, I go to the mound. I can't really explain it. Baseball's all mental, and I got my confidence back, and the talent started to show a little bit. It was there all along. I had to get my mind right."
He admits now that he was trying to do a little too much when he joined the Cubs organization.
"I thought, 'Oh, I've got to hit, I've got to do this, I've got to do that,'" Burke said. "[This year] I just relaxed and had fun. I wasn't having any fun my first year or two."
There wasn't one conversation when the light bulb went on, or one person who influenced him.
"Something clicked," he said. "I can't put my finger on it."
The Dominican trip is a reward for his success. Burke will be joined at the Cubs' academy in Boca Chica by Rebel Ridling, Ryan Flaherty, DJ LeMahieu, Logan Watkins, Brett Jackson, Matt Cerda and Sergio Burruel. The goal for the monthlong junket is to play baseball, watch some Winter League games and get a better understanding of the Dominican Republic, where many of their teammates are from.
"It's a reward, and a 'keep it going' kind of thing," said Dave Keller, the Cubs Minor League hitting coordinator. "We want them to work on stuff and enjoy themselves."
"I'm excited about it," Burke said. "I'll get to go down there, see where those guys come from, see their culture. I think it will help me be able to relate to [Dominican teammates] better. It'll be exciting to see where they come from. I'll also get a few more at-bats."
How's his Spanish?
"I'm definitely going to struggle with that a little bit," Burke said, laughing.
Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita still remembers his first trip to the Dominican, and how much it helped him.
"I thought it made it easier for me to understand where they come from," Fleita said. "It's a better way to help you teach. It's hard to teach when you don't know their background or where they come from."
Several Major League teams, including the New York Mets, San Diego Padres and Cleveland Indians, take advantage of their academies in the Dominican Republic to send Minor League players for extra work in the winter. Ryne Sandberg, who wrapped up his third season as a Minor League manager, spent a few weeks there to get a better feel for his players.
"As an industry, we have facilities in the Dominican that a lot of teams feel confident they can go there, and send their players there, and take care of them, and put them in facilities that are suitable," Fleita said.
Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano lives close to where the Minor Leaguers will be housed, and may stop by the academy to continue his rehab from knee surgery.
"It's all about preparing them to play in the Major Leagues, and as much as we can throw at them, we'll continue to do," Fleita said of the contingent, which will return to the U.S. on Nov. 21.
During the instructional league games in Arizona, Burke rotated between left, center and right with outfielders Jackson, the team's No. 1 Draft pick in June, and Brandon Guyer, a fifth-round pick in 2007. Burke batted .303 in the IL, Jackson .286, Guyer .304. Guyer led the trio with two home runs and 10 RBIs. Someday, the three hope to be in the big leagues. As outfielders.
"Hopefully, one day we're all there together," Burke said.
Pitching wasn't that far fetched an idea.
"I never did throw off a mound," Burke said. "I did pitch in high school, and when I was getting drafted, scouts would say, 'What do you want to do, hit or pitch?' [Pitching] has always been around. I try not to think about it. I just try to go out and hit. If it doesn't end up working out, I always have that to fall back on."
Not yet. Burke's nickname in the instructional league was "Poy," because of his Player of the Year honors (POY -- get it?). That's old news, he said.
"It's a great honor," Burke said. "In the long run, the goal is to be in the big leagues. You have to almost forget about [the award] and keep working hard. What I did this year doesn't really matter any more. I've got a new year, and I've got to keep working."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.