Kyler Burke’s professional contact with a pitcher’s mound had been limited to running across it returning to the dugout while playing outfield in a variety of cities including Daytona, Fla., and Peoria, Ill.
The mound now is underfoot much more often and very much on his mind after the former Ooltewah High School star committed to a switch from outfielder to pitcher.
“When the college guys were recruiting him they were split on whether he was a hitter or a pitcher,” recalled Joe Wingate, who coached Burke through his junior season with the Owls. “I know Tennessee wanted him solely as a pitcher while others saw him as a position player.”
Burke wound up signing with Vanderbilt, which recruited him to play the outfield and to pitch, but he never got to the Nashville school. He was selected by the San Diego Padres in the first round of the 2006 draft and later was traded to the Chicago Cubs as part of the deal for catcher Michael Barrett.
His best hitting season — .303, 15 home runs, 89 RBIs — was in 2009 when he was named the Cubs’ minor league player of the year. He struggled last year, however, with a .212 batting average in 515 at-bats for High-A Daytona.
Burke, now 22, was approached by Oneri Fleita, the Cubs’ vice president for player personnel, about the position switch.
“He said it had been discussed at higher levels and he wanted to know what I thought about it,” Burke said. “I didn’t know what to think at first. I have been hitting for four or five years, but my ultimate goal is getting to the big leagues. I told him if this was the best way to that goal, then that’s what I wanted to do.”
Burke’s decision didn’t really surprise Wingate.
“This was to be his sixth season as a hitter, and while he showed a lot of promise he wasn’t as consistent as he wanted to be,” Wingate said. “There is a whole lot more competition for outfield spots than for a left-handed pitcher who was clocked at 92 miles per hour in high school.”
From Burke’s perspective there is an outfield logjam between Class AA and AAA.
“I could have kept hitting, but pitching is probably in my best interest,” he said.
So his career begins anew and he very well could revisit Boise, Idaho, or Fort Wayne, Ind., before he even thinks about Peoria, Daytona or the Cubs’ AA and AAA affiliates in Kodak, Tenn., and Iowa City, Iowa.
First, though, comes an extended stay at the Cubs’ spring-training facility in Mesa, Ariz., where he has been since Feb. 21.
“I spent the first three or four weeks as a hitter, so this is definitely going to be something different,” Burke said. “I won’t be playing nine innings every day, and I’ll probably be out here another couple of months.”
He figures his initial pitching appearances will be in relief.
He hadn’t done much in his new role as of the end of last week because he had to undergo an MRI on his elbow and shoulder to make sure everything was all right. Then the dye used for the MRI had to dissipate, which takes two or three days.
He spent the early part of this week long-tossing and throwing on flat ground.
“After that I’ll be throwing off a mound in the bullpen and eventually pitching batting practice and maybe in a game or two before they shoot me to Peoria or Boise,” Burke said. “One of the pitching coaches told me he thought it would be Peoria.”
Burke pointed out that the Cubs’ Randy Wells and Carlos Marmol, the closer, are among the major leaguers who started out as position players and became pitchers.
“It’s going to be a good thing,” he said. “There are bunches of guys out there who can hit, but there aren’t that many hard-throwing lefties.”
Other area high school players in pro baseball
P Mitchell Boggs
He’s beginning his second full season in the majors and was mentioned early in spring training as a future St. Louis closer candidate. Last year in 67 innings he posted a 3.61 ERA with 52 strikeouts, and his 2011 ERA was 3.60 through Friday.
P Cole Brand
Brand didn’t leave until Tuesday for minor league spring training. In his first season last year, he went 2-3 with a save. He had a 5.12 ERA but struck out 17 in 19 innings.
C Ryan Casteel
The former catcher now is listed as an infielder/designated hitter. Casteel hit .305 for the Class A Casper (Wyo.) Ghosts in his first year and .394 in August, which he ended as Pioneer League player of the week. He expects to go back to Casper or to the Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Wash. Both seasons start in June.
2B Charlie Culberson
A 2007 first-round draft pick, Culberson spent a year in rookie league and two seasons in the South Atlantic League before moving to high-A San Jose, where he hit a career-best .299 with 16 home runs, 71 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. He’s batting .333 after two games with the Class AA Richmond (Va.) Flying Squirrels.
P Ryan Fraser
Drafted last year out of the University of Memphis, Fraser became the closer for the Mets’ rookie team in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he had 12 saves and averaged more than a strikeout per inning with a 1.44 ERA. But he was the scheduled starter for the Class A Savannah Sand Gnats in their second 2011 game, a Friday rainout.
P Cory Gearrin
He had a 3.36 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 52 appearances last year (80 innings) at Gwinnett and Mississippi. Gearrin, who became a relief specialist/closer in junior college at Young Harris, is back at Triple-A Gwinnett but on the big-league Braves’ 40-man roster.
P Kyle Heckathorn
A 2009 first-round pick by the Brewers, he split last season with Class A Wisconsin and high-A Brevard County in Florida, compiling a 10-6 record, a 2.98 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 124 innings. He is ranked among the top 10 Milwaukee prospects and pitched Brevard’s 2011 season opener, leaving after five innings with a 2-1 lead.
1B Wes Hodges
He has been at Columbus (AAA) the last two seasons, hitting .269 in 2009 and .270 in 2010 but increasing his home runs from five to 15 and RBIs from 40 to 60. He is back with the Clippers but on Cleveland’s 40-man roster.
OF Marcus Jones
He got just 25 at-bats in his first year of pro ball, but four of his five hits were doubles for the Orioles’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
1B Blake McDade
The former Middle Tennessee State standout hit .327 in his first season of pro ball at Casper, Wyo. He likely is headed with Casteel for Pasco, Wash., from minor league camp.
OF Tyler Massey
The Red Raiders’ former pitcher/first baseman struggled in his second season, hitting .209 for Class A Asheville, but he is only 20 years old and still considered among the Rockies’ plus prospects. He’s back at Asheville and had an RBI in the Tourists’ 4-2 season-opening loss.
OF Rashad Ramsey
A 20th-round pick by Oakland in 2010, Ramsey played in 25 games last summer for the team’s Arizona Rookie League team, hitting .152 in 66 at-bats but also stealing six bases.
P Josh Smoker
A first-round pick by Washington in the 2007 draft, Smoker split time last year between the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic leagues, finishing up at Hagerstown, Md. He seems to have settled in as a late-inning specialist and now is with the high-A Potomac Nationals.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...