Sunday, February 7, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - Dennis Burlingame

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.

Of the many players on this list, Dennis Burlingame stands out. He's the oldest pitcher - by far - of the collection of former prospects who both appeared on the Baseball America Top 100 as a Braves prospect and failed to appear for the Atlanta Braves. A Phillies fan as a kid from south New Jersey, Burlingame was expected to be part of the new Braves of the 90's. Instead, he would play seven years in the minors before his career came to an abrupt and disappointing end.

The 1987 draft was an example of how little Atlanta actually got out of their drafts in the 80's. For every Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, there was a draft like 1987 where the Braves picked Derek Lilliquist with the sixth overall pick. Three picks later, the Royals selected Kevin Appier. While Appier was rarely excellent, he still had a career worth about 50 bWAR better than Lilliquist. But at least Lilliquist made it to the majors. Only Keith Mitchell (4th round), Brian Hunter (8th), Mike Stanton (13th), and David Nied (14th) joined him out of the 50 players selected by the Braves. Burlingame was picked with the 116th overall selection out of Kingsway Regional High School. The only player ever picked out of that school was his brother, Greg, who originally went in the 15th round five years before but didn't sign. Greg went to community college before transferring to the University of Hawaii where the Mariners selected him 18 rounds after Dennis in 1987.

The younger Burlingame didn't start his career until 1988, when he showed some excellent control as a 19 year-old in the South Atlantic League. He didn't strike out many, but walked just 2.4 BB/9 and with an ERA of 2.49, it was a successful first season. Elbow troubles would limit him over the next years. He was great when he was on the mound and his 0.50 ERA in 54.1 ING during 1989 caught the eye of Baseball America, who ranked him as the 50th best prospect heading into 1990. That made him the fourth-best prospect in the system behind lefthanders Avery, Stanton, and Kent Mercker. His biggest moment of those two injury-shortened years came on Opening Day of the 1989 season. Avery and Burlingame, who were also roommates, both were tabbed to start the two games of a double header for the Durham Bulls. Burlingame got the first start and set down all 21 batters he faced in a seven-inning perfect game. In the minors, double header games are shortened to seven innings a piece. Avery came in for the night cap and tossed six scoreless himself while allowing two hits. By the end of the day, the Frederick Keys only found solace in saying "well, they can't pitch tomorrow."

Once Burlingame finally returned in 1991 to full-time action, something was lacking. He still maintained a solid ERA, but his control took a nosedive. Elbow surgeries back in that era didn't come with the success rate you see today. Instead, a guy who had walked under 2 batters per 9 during his career walked 80 in 161.1 ING (4.5 per nine). On the bright side, the innings was nice to see after pitching 90 total the previous two seasons and his ERA still looked nice at 3.01, but the control was definitely an issue. The following season, 1992, was pretty similar to his previous year. A good ERA at 3.09, a workhouse quality 151.2 innings, and a mediocre 1.4 K/BB. On one hand, he was now a graduate of AA. On the other, his numbers told the story of organizational filler rather than the potential high-value prospect of 1989.

It seemed to all come apart for Burlingame in 1993. He got six games, including one start, for the Richmond Braves, but walked a small village of 14 in 14.2 ING. He struck out just five. He also walked more batters than he struck out during 66.2 innings with Greenville. In an effort to get him going, Atlanta gave him six starts in Macon and while his control looked better there, he still didn't pitch that well (his 2.02 ERA doesn't match his deeper numbers).

Before heading to spring training in 1994, Burlingame did a baseball clinic for 12 and 13 year-olds. It was a nice opportunity for him to try to give back to his local community where he attempted to give kids an inside look on the path to the bigs. He then went to camp in Florida and tried to get back on that path himself through any means at his disposal. A month later, the Braves gave Burlingame a new task. He would head to the California League to work as a knuckleballer for a team the Braves had a working relationship with. In light of the success of Tim Wakefield for the Pirates, teams were interested in using the knuckler as a way to give project pitchers a shot to find themselves again. Burlingame's one year as a professional knuckleballer was atrocious. He paced the league in runs allowed and walked 104 batters, also a league-high. He was cut after the season.

Burlingame had an opportunity to continue his professional career. At least eight teams offered him a chance to join their spring camp as a replacement player if the Strike didn't come to a close heading into the 1995 season. Burlingame, who pumped gas as an offseason job, had to be tempted - but ultimately said no. Either he was going to be a major leaguer by earning it or not. Instead, he went to Mexico and tried to keep the dream alive, but soon retired after just two games. He returned home and began a high school coaching career in 2001. In addition, he is a pitching coach for the South Jersey Bulpen, a baseball academy where he is a colleague of former Brave Dwayne Henry.

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