Kyler Burke had a choice.
He could continue battling his way to the big leagues with a bat in his hands, or he could put the bat down and try something new.
Burke’s option was not exactly to continue hitting or go stock shelves for a living, but it was a career-altering choice.
“It was a tough decision,” he said.
“I went back and forth a million times. They were looking at a clear-cut answer.”
After a few days, Burke went back to Oneri Fleita and told the Cubs’ vice president of player personnel that he would indeed move 60 feet, 6 inches from the batters box to the pitcher’s mound.
“I think it’s a great move, because he’s bought in 100 percent, and that’s what you have to do when you make a move like that,” Boise Hawks manager Mark Johnson said. “His presence and his demeanor and his poise, it’s off the charts. His stuff is off the charts. It’s just a matter of getting some innings. And he likes it, that’s the main thing, he likes it, and he’s pretty damn good at it.”
Just two seasons after Burke was named the Cubs’ minor league player of the year for the big numbers he produced at the plate, he is back with Chicago’s shortseason Class A affiliate in Boise as a pitcher.
Boise opens the Northwest League season tonight in Eugene. Burke is scheduled to make his professional pitching debut in the later part of Tuesday’s road game against the Emeralds.
“It’s gone real smooth so far, things are working out pretty good and I’m pretty excited about it,” Burke said.
Burke arrived at the Cubs’ spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz. hoping to make Chicago’s Class AA team in Tennessee. He was coming off a season in which his batting average dipped from .303 in 2009 with Peoria (Ill.) to .212 in Daytona. His five home runs in 2010 where 10 less than he had the previous season. His RBI and walk totals dropped from 89 to 60 and 74 to 43, respectively, and his strike outs increased from 99 to 131.
“As a whole, my hitting career was up and down,” Burke said.
Therefore, Fleita called Burke into an office at spring training and asked if he would consider pitching. Burke had displayed one of the strongest arms in the organization. During his time in Boise in 2007 and 2008, Burke routinely threw out base runners or held them from advancing an extra base when the ball was hit to right field.
Fleita said it was always obvious that he could one day pitch, but it just couldn’t be forced upon him. He needed to make a choice.
“It’s almost got to be his idea,” Fleita said. “You can’t get in with one foot in and one foot out.”
Burke said he’s into his position change 100 percent and likes the idea of starting over again.
“That’s what I talked to my dad about, and he said, ‘whatever you decide, you have to be in 100 percent,’” Burke said. “I thought that was pretty good advice.”
Burke was signed out of Ooltewah (Tenn.) High with the intention to pitch and play the field at Vanderbilt. He never made it to Nashville after he was drafted 35th overall by the Padres in 2006. The Cubs acquired Burke in a trade the following year and he started his time with the Cubs in Boise. Now, four years later, he is back with the Hawks and all but starting anew.
His time in the minor leagues is an advantage over other first-year players, said Hawks pitching coach David Rosario.
“He’s been around baseball for a couple of years,” Rosario said. “The adjustment into professional baseball is easier, he already did that. So the mental aspect of the game is going to be faster.”
Rosario said Burke throws a 90- to 93-mph four-seam fastball, above average overhand curveball and is working on a changeup.
“For a left-hander that can have a nice, fluid delivery, that can give you 90 to 93 (mph fastball) and can create quality breaking balls, he can give you hope,” Rosario said. “We’re excited about him.
“He’s got a lot of things going his way.”