The Road to The Show™: Cardinals’ Burleson
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at fifth-ranked Cardinals prospect Alec Burleson. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here. There was never really much doubt about Alec Burleson’s
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at fifth-ranked Cardinals prospect Alec Burleson. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here.
There was never really much doubt about Alec Burleson’s ability to hit.
Even when he was among the best two-way prospects leading into the 2020 Draft, it was evident that Burleson’s bat would carry him to great heights. Almost two seasons later, he’s proven to be one of the best hitters at the highest level of the Minor Leagues.
MLB Pipeline’s No. 92 overall prospect leads the Triple-A International League with a .328 batting average entering the final three weeks of the season with Memphis. He’s also second on the circuit with a .532 slugging percentage, and his 14.4 percent strikeout rate is the lowest among all Minor Leaguers with at least 20 homers.
“For me, the thing I really take pride in as a hitter is not striking out,” Burleson told reporters after being drafted in the second round in 2020. “That’s been something I’ve carried ever since I started playing baseball. It’s not so much the fear of striking out but not letting the pitcher beat you where you weren’t able to put the ball in play. That’s something I’ve always taken pride in.”
The tremendous work with the bat that the Cardinals’ No. 5 prospect has done since being drafted has exceeded what were already high expectations coming out of East Carolina University.
Burleson played both corner outfield spots and first base in addition to making 47 appearances on the mound in two-plus seasons with the Pirates.
As a pitcher, he was a crafty left-hander who worked a slider and changeup with a high-80s fastball. Although most of his appearances came out of the bullpen, he was lined up to be a regular starter alongside Gavin Williams in the ECU rotation before the pandemic shut down the season. Burleson pitched 137 2/3 innings in college and compiled a 3.46 ERA with 139 strikeouts.
While his pitching prowess would have been enough to at least be drafted, the bat made him an early-round talent. He hit .341 with an .883 OPS over 470 plate appearances for the Pirates.
The Charlotte, N.C., native hit just 12 homers over those two-plus seasons but consistently made hard, line-drive contact to the gaps, recording 28 doubles and driving in 91 runs. Burleson produced exit velocities that made scouts confident he could turn those doubles into homers. After the Draft, he explained why he had his own confidence in that transformation.
“I’ve been lifting as a pitcher just to take care of my arm,” Burleson said. “I think there’s a lot more in the tank from a strength and condition aspect of it. I’m just looking forward to focusing on one.”
Burleson seemed open to remaining a two-way player through the Draft, but admitted that he began to shift his focus to being a full-time hitter in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2019.
“Being a two-way [player] in college was exciting, because you had control of the game on both sides of the ball,” Burleson said. “But to be drafted as a hitter, that’s kind of what I wanted to do throughout this whole process, so I think my ceiling is pretty high as a hitter.”
OF Alec Burleson hits a 10th inning two-run homer to give the @memphisredbirds their first walk-off win of the season!pic.twitter.com/IJu8XaoYQW— Cardinals Player Development (@CardsPlayerDev) May 27, 2022
St. Louis seems to have gotten more out of the shortened 2020 Draft than any other team. Each of the club’s first four picks -- Jordan Walker (No. 21 overall selection), Masyn Winn (No. 54), Tink Hence (No. 63) and Burleson (No. 70) -- in that Draft currently rank among MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects. Winn was also a two-way player selected by the Cardinals on Day 2, but his eventual permanent move off the mound wasn’t as immediate as Burleson’s.
In his first Minor League season last year, Burleson hit the ground running. He was promoted from High-A Peoria after just 11 games at the level, and he was named by the club as the Cardinals’ Minor League Player of the Month in May. At Double-A Springfield, he batted .288/.333/.488 and really tapped into his power, bashing 14 homers and driving in 44 runs before another promotion to Memphis in August.
Burleson had a difficult final month with the Redbirds, batting .229 in September. He still finished with 22 total homers across the three levels, which seems to be a number he's capable of reaching on an annual basis.
It was clear he’d need some more time in the Minors in 2022, especially with a crowded outfield situation in St. Louis. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound slugger began to challenge for that big league spot right away. He was named Player of the Month by the Cardinals again in May and maintained that incredible pace throughout the season.
Burleson might get to the big leagues quicker as a designated hitter, but he's more than capable of patrolling the corner outfield spots. He's not as swift as the average right fielder, but he has the arm strength to make up for it.
The 23-year-old’s season could very well end with a postseason push in St. Louis. But even if he’s called up before his next game with the Redbirds, he’ll still have put together one of the best offensive seasons in the Minors in 2022.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.