At the end of the 2014 season, things looked bad for right-handed pitcher Jake Burnette’s future. He was a member of that strong 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates draft class, going in the seventh round and receiving a $550,000 bonus to break his commitment to Georgia Tech. That was the fifth biggest bonus in the draft for the Pirates, and just $50,000 behind what Tyler Glasnow received in the fifth round.
Burnette came into the system looking like he had a lot of promise, flashing a fastball that hit 93 MPH in his first year, along with a curveball that had the potential to be an above-average pitch. He was tall, skinny, and projectable. There wasn’t much that seemed to separate him and his upside from ninth round pick Clay Holmes, who has the upside of a middle of the rotation starter.
The injury bug has since derailed his career. He had a sore elbow in 2012, limiting him to five starts. The following year he only made five appearances before going on the disabled list with elbow soreness. In a surprise move, he had labrum surgery, putting him out for the rest of the year, and most of 2014.
Last year he came back and threw 24 innings, with poor results and poor control. He flashed a fastball that was sitting 88-90 MPH, down from where he was before the injuries kicked in. At the age of 22, it looked like his injuries had totally derailed his career.
I saw him listed as the starter in Thursday’s minor league action for the low-A team, and decided to get a good look at him, since I haven’t really seen him over the last few years due to the injuries. The pitcher I saw on Thursday was a lot closer to the pitcher I saw in early 2012, and much improved over the pitcher that John Dreker saw last June.
Burnette was sitting 90-92 MPH, and hit 93 once. He had some late cutting movement on his fastball, although he displayed some poor control at times. The first inning saw him sitting mostly 91-92, and he only needed 11 pitches to get through the inning. He ran into problems in the second inning putting guys away as he mixed in his off-speed stuff a little more.
“It was my first outing, so I was trying first inning, focusing on the fastball, second inning mixing it up a little bit,” Burnette said. “I’m just getting the feel for it. Getting the feel for hitters, being in there live.”
The second inning saw him throw 30 pitches, dropping to 90-91 MPH, and finishing the inning with a swinging strikeout on an 89 MPH fastball. The pitch count was high because he had issues putting people away with the curve and the changeup. He ended up giving up a run on two hits and two walks, while striking out two. He threw 41 pitches with 25 strikes.
The control was an issue, but Burnette’s velocity was back for this outing, which is a positive sign after labrum surgery.
“Since the surgery I’ve been doing a lot better job staying on my arm care, keeping my arm healthy,” Burnette said. “And it’s been feeling good, coming out good. I’m pretty happy with it.”
He worked a lot in the training room during the off-season, working with bands and weights. He also worked with a trainer to keep his shoulder strong and healthy.
“It was off and on last year coming back from the surgery,” Burnette said of his arm. “The rest this off-season was really good for it. Took a break from it. Let it rest and heal and recover some. It’s been feeling great since then.”
It’s too soon to say whether Burnette is back to being a prospect to watch again. He needs to prove he can stay healthy, needs to fix his control, and needs to command his off-speed stuff better. But he’s a guy who looked like he was on his way out of baseball last season, and is now a guy who looks like he has a shot to revive his career.
Other Minor League Notes
**Cole Tucker made a nice play at shortstop on Thursday, ranging far to his right on a ground ball, then making a strong and accurate throw to first to get the runner in time. Tucker continues to look good at shortstop, while displaying some speed on the bases.
**Edwin “Tank” Espinal lined a double down the third base line on Thursday. It was a little painful watching him stretch it to two. I like Espinal’s bat, but he’s going to need better conditioning in order to make it above A-ball.
**Hayden Hurst was an over-slot prep pitcher in 2012, receiving $400,000. The Pirates moved him to first base last year. His defense looked bad on Thursday, displaying no range and poor glove work.
**Cody Dickson was sitting 85-91 MPH with his fastball on Thursday. I didn’t see much of his start, since I was focusing on Burnette and I’ll be seeing Dickson all year in Bradenton. His stat line: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 30 pitches/16 strikes.
**Jordan Luplow, who will be the third baseman in West Virginia this year, had two hard hit balls to the left side, with one of them going for a hit. I definitely like his bat better at third base.
**Neil Kozikowski, an over-slot prep pitcher from the 2013 draft, displayed poor command of his fastball and was hit hard. He was sitting 87-89 MPH.
**Pablo Reyes might be a guy to watch. He had some interesting numbers last year in Bristol, and will make the jump to West Virginia this year as their second baseman. He’s a small guy, and very skinny, but makes good contact. On Thursday he doubled over the center fielder’s head. It would have been a triple, but Cole Tucker was held up between first and second, waiting for the ball to drop.
**Tyler Glasnow made a start, and I wrote about that outing here, which includes a video of his start.
**Ryan Hafner displayed some command issues early with his slider. His two-seam fastball was sitting 90-91 MPH.
**I was focused on Glasnow, so I didn’t see Adrian Sampson. He was 90-92 MPH, threw 47 pitches with 27 strikes, and his stat line was as follows: 3 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K.
**Gift Ngoepe continues to look smooth at shortstop, making one difficult play look easy, and handling the routine plays like they’re nothing. His defense is good enough that it might get him to the majors one day, if only for a day, even without the bat.
**Collin Balester was sitting 91-93 MPH. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2013.
**I got to see independent pitchers Chris Peacock and Matt Nevarez for the first time in game action. Peacock throws 93-95 MPH, but was sitting 87-89 MPH yesterday. It looked like he was throwing a two-seam fastball, which explains the velocity difference. Nevarez is said to throw 93-95 MPH, and was sitting 92-94 yesterday. He had some control problems, starting off with a four pitch walk, then hitting the next batter. He recovered to strike out the next three batters. His cutter had some command issues, looking like a slider at times, while other times it looked sharp and effective.