Burke flying high under the radar
Utility man thriving in first Cactus League campaign
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name. For Chris Burke, after seven years in the limelight as the Astros' No. 1 pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, Arizona has been the perfect place.
"Being drafted by Houston and coming up through the system, there was always a heightened sense of awareness about my situation," Burke said on Monday. "Whereas over here, I'm certainly under the radar, trying to kind of get in where I fit in and do the best with the opportunities that I get. It's a different feel. I walk by fans and nobody knows my name. And it's always nice to play well."
If Burke keeps playing as well as he has so far in his first Cactus League spring, he won't be able to hold on to that anonymity for long. His .395 spring average (15-for-38) is eighth among National League players, and he is tied for the lead with 11 runs while ranking in the top five in three other categories, including slugging (.763), on-base percentage (.489), and doubles (five). To top it off, he's tied for the lead among NL players in the Cactus League with three home runs.
Part of the difference may be as simple as the change in scenery and expectations. In Houston, Burke was a top Draft choice waiting for an opportunity to come fully into his own. The path to an everday job at his primary position was perpetually blocked by second baseman Craig Biggio, but he still managed to average 114 games a year in his three full seasons with the Astros, including earning the bulk of the playing time in left field in the pennant-winning '05 season.
The pressure of being a much-heralded prospect in the spotlight was left behind in Houston when Burke, Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez were traded to Arizona for closer Jose Valverde.
"Once you get with your second team, there's a whole 'nother pressure," Burke said. "They don't have that money invested in me like the Astros did with the Draft. Now you're fighting for your job, so it's a different type of pressure, but pressure nonetheless."
The road to regular playing time doesn't figure to be any smoother in Arizona, where three-time Gold Glove winner Orlando Hudson is holding down the second base job and established starters are returning to their jobs at all eight positions.
He's already gained the confidence of manager Bob Melvin, who has Burke penciled in with the potential to help the club at every infield position and as a fifth outfielder behind Jeff Salazar.
"He's got the range to defend at any position," Melvin said. "Third's one that he hasn't played a whole lot. The middle [infield spots] are his natural positions. Having him at first base at times is like having a fourth shortstop out there. He's fit in really nicely here with the rest of the group. He's been one of our hardest workers, and he's been productive in any spot that we put him in."
The time spent working defensively at multiple positions has clearly not impacted his ability to perform at the plate. Coupled with the change in scenery, an adjustment in his stance and stride at the plate is the other reason for Burke's strong inaugural tour of the Cactus League.
"Rich Schu, the hitting coach, and I have really worked hard on straightening my stride out," Burke said. "I got to where I was diving towards home plate a little too much, and I was closing myself off. I ended up kind of limiting myself to only one part of the plate. I wasn't covering both sides of the plate. Not that you're ever going to cover it all, but you try to put yourself in the best position mechanically to hit all the pitches. I got my stride going back towards the mound, and I think it's freed me up to cover a few more pitches."
His ability with the bat is a key part of what initially attracted the D-backs to Burke, and though his '07 average fell nearly 50 points from his high-water mark of .276 in '06, Melvin has confidence in his ability to contribute to a potent offense.
"He's a tough kid," Melvin said. "The game doesn't speed up for him. He has a great understanding of what pitchers are going to try to do to him, and therefore what he needs to do. He can hit the ball the other way, he can pull the ball, he's got a little sock in his bat at times. He's impressed us.
"The bigger the at-bat, the tougher at-bat he gives you," Melvin added, recalling Burke's dramatic 18th-inning home run to beat the Braves in the '05 Division Series. "He's a tough guy, and he gives you solid at-bats. With the playing time he's gotten here and the consistent at-bats he's gotten [in Spring Training], I don't know that we've had anybody that's swung the bat better than he has."
At 28, Burke is not naïve enough to think his hot spring provides him with any kind of guarantees.
"On March 31st, they wipe the slate clean," he pointed out.
Even with all the momentum he's building, he knows he's likely to spend a considerable amount of time on the bench in April as the starters are given ample opportunity to find their stride.
"I'm not going to lose sight of the fact that it's a long season," Burke said. "Even if I don't get a lot of at-bats early, I'll just see how the season materializes. This is my job on this team, and I'm going to try to stay as sharp as I can so that if I do need to fill in one day for somebody, hopefully the team doesn't lose anything."
Who knows, he might even win some recognition from his new hometown fans.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.