Following the 2009 season, the Cubs named outfielder Kyler Burke their Minor League Player of the Year. Just a year later, the team and Burke agreed he was better suited for the mound than the outfield.
On Saturday night, he demonstrated why he thinks it was the right call.
Burke allowed one hit over five scoreless innings in his second start of the season as Class A Advanced Daytona edged Lakeland, 5-4. Since returning from an oblique strain suffered in Spring Training, he's given up one earned run in 10 innings, striking out seven while yielding five hits and four walks.
"I think it was a good move," the 25-year-old left-hander said. "And I think things are going in the right direction."
Burke was selected 35th overall in the 2006 Draft by the Padres, who traded him to Chicago almost exactly a year later for catcher Michael Barrett. After scuffling at the plate in 2007 and 2008, Burke broke out in 2009. He batted .303 with 15 homers, 43 doubles, 89 RBIs, 14 steals and a .910 OPS in 132 games with Class A Peoria.
The Cubs named him the organization's Minor League Player of the Year and promoted him to Daytona for the 2010 season. The good times hit an abrupt end in the Florida State League, where Burke hit .212 with a .607 OPS in 135 games.
While his offense struggled, his rocket arm continued to catch the Cubs' attention from the outfield, so much so that they decided to move him to the mound in 2011.
"In general, there are fewer left-handed pitchers," Burke said."It's a commodity in any organization. That was a big part of it right there.
"It was definitely a tough decision because I'd worked hard for 4 ½ years to be a hitter. I think it was a good move."
Burke got his first taste of pitching with Boise in the short-season Northwest League. He made 16 relief appearances in 2011, posting an encouraging 2.86 ERA with 47 strikeouts over 44 innings.
In 2012, he began to stretch out as a starter. He made 15 appearances, including 10 starts, for Peoria to open the season, compiling a 2.31 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 74 innings. He jumped to Daytona and logged 56 2/3 innings with a 4.92 ERA, 39 strikeouts and 22 walks.
The potential and the work ethic are there for Burke to climb the ladder as a hurler. His fastball usually works in the 90-91 mph range, but Daytona pitching coach Storm Davis said he's seen him tick up into the mid-90s. He'll continue to develop as a starter but could find success as a reliever at higher levels if he can burst that velocity in shorter work and improve his secondary offerings.
Burke said he loves being a starting pitcher, but if it means a shot at the Major Leagues, he'll gladly switch to relief.
He's already showing an advanced ability to make adjustments compared to his Florida State League peers, something he displayed Saturday. In the fourth inning, Lakeland's Steven Moya reached on an error and Burke walked the next hitter, Mike Hernandez. But he retired Jason Krizan on a ground ball to end the threat.
In the dugout after the inning, Davis told Burke he was rushing his delivery and asked him to think about staying back longer when he went out for the fifth. Burke made the adjustment seamlessly, Davis said, and the result was a 1-2-3 inning.
"He listens and he's a hard worker. That's a good combination with any athlete in any sport," Davis said. "He has a pretty good feel for how to pitch. Like all the guys at this level, he still has things to work on daily, but he grinds away at it."
Burke is encouraged.
"The longer I play here, the more I'm able to slow the game down and focus on the right things," he said. "A lot of that is that a lot of mechanical adjustments just happen by your mental process. I've been playing for a few years and you kind of learn how to do that within the game.
"For me, how I make adjustments is with my mental process. The brain controls the body, so if you can control your thoughts, everything else just takes care of itself."
Coming off the oblique injury, Burke is still trying to get back to where he was at the end of 2012, although the results through two starts are encouraging. Davis said he wants Burke to work on getting "a little more athletic in his delivery, so he can be as athletic as he was as a position player." If Burke can achieve that, it's possible that will loosen his arm enough to unlock the velocity he's shown only in flashes."
And if that happens, the Cubs may wind up with an excellent pitcher and an even better story. Even if it doesn't, left-handers who can throw in the 90s are still a commodity. And Burke would be happy to rise any way he can.
"I just want to get to the big leagues," he said. "I love starting and I love the routine of going out every fifth day and getting my work in between. If it works out as a reliever, that's fine, too. It really doesn't matter to me."