Burke, who turns 22 April 20, had two less than memorable seasons in the Chicago Cubs' farm system before figuring some things out a year ago at Peoria, where he batted .303 with a career-high 15 home runs, 43 doubles and a .405 on-base percentage. That earned him the award for Cubs Minor League Player of the Year.
Burke will begin 2010 at Class High-A Daytona, playing in a pitcher-friendly park in a pitcher-friendly league. Burke says he feels up to the challenge.
"I hit the ball pretty well this spring and I feel ready to go," he said. "I stayed healthy. I started out on the Double-A roster and was sent down to Daytona. I felt pretty good about my spring, hit the ball pretty well, and played pretty good defense.
"The big thing right now is to get used to the park down here. It's obviously a lot different down here with the humid weather. Coming out of Arizona where it's kind of dry, I'm getting used to the park and getting settled in. I'm trying to get my timing down and just trying to get off to a good start and keep it going like I did last year."
It was quite a year for Burke last season. A former first-round pick that the Cubs acquired for embattled catcher Michael Barrett in a 2007 trade with the San Diego Padres, Burke led the Midwest League in doubles, was second in on-base percentage and extra-base hits (61), and was tied for third in RBI (89) and slugging percentage (.505). He was a Midwest League All-Star.
Depending on who you ask, all of that might not have happened had Burke not convinced the Cubs to stick with him at the plate. Following a disappointing 2008 season, there were rumblings that the Cubs were thinking of converting Burke to pitcher. He possesses one of the best outfield arms in the Cubs' system, so the idea wasn't that far-fetched.
Still, Burke said those talks were neither here nor there.
"I really don't know how serious they were thinking about it," Burke said. "Oneri (Fleita) talked to my agent about it and some guys thought maybe I should try it out. But it was really more just hearsay. I don't think it was ever really in the plans."
In any event, Burke proved he could hit – and did hit.
He changed some things with his swing and stance after being a straight-up hitter the first two years of his career. But what it really boiled down to, Burke said, was his mental approach to the game and every at-bat.
For the first time in his career, Burke wasn't pressing as much and developed an approach at the plate that he felt comfortable with.
"I wasn't always worried about getting a hit, but rather having a good approach and a good plan at the plate. It got a lot better, my approach in different situations," he said. "You get into a little slump and it's a natural thing to want to get five hits with one swing and it just doesn't happen. I learned how to deal with that. The confidence just started to come with the success I had early on in the season.
"The biggest thing is experience," Burke added. "We talked a lot last year about getting a good pitch to hit rather than just going up there swinging, and I think your approach helps you lay off some pitches that a lot of guys swing at outside of the strike zone. It all goes back to the mental thing. When you have confidence up there, you're a little bit more relaxed and see the ball a little better. It all goes together."
Burke hit .327 in the first month of then season, then had two blistering hot months in July and August, batting .315 after the All-Star break – including .357 in 28 games in August. He also drew 78 walks last season, almost doubling his previous career-high.
With Burke's arm, he won't be moving from the outfield any time soon. He had 43 assists in the outfield last season with most of those coming in right field.
But Burke also got some reps at first base last year and again this spring, and he says he'll keep the position on his resume for the time being.
"I'll (still) play more in the outfield and maybe first late in the game if the first baseman gets pinch-run for or needs a day off," he said. "I feel like I can play all three outfield positions, but I'm more comfortable in right because I've played most of the games in my career there."
"We work on the little details every day as far as situations, seeing how the pitchers throw to different guys and trying to get to know some guys' tendencies so you can play them differently," Burke said of his work in the outfield. "We work on our footwork and every day in B.P. on getting reads off the bat and better jumps. It's just all a bunch of little things. It's not one thing you work on in the outfield. The outfield isn't easy but you're going to stay fresh on your jumps and things like that."
And as with last year, having a fast start to the season is important, Burke said.
"Especially after struggling for a couple of seasons early on, it was huge for me," Burke said. "I don't think it's the end of the world if you start out a little slow. You have to see some pitches and get your timing back. It definitely makes things a lot easier to get started out on the right foot. It's natural to want to start out strong right off the bat. But stay relaxed, stay calm, and everything will take care of itself."
Burke Thriving with New Confidence, Approach
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