PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Mets reliever Greg Burke spent two years playing in the Padres' system alongside outfielder Aaron Cunningham, whom he considers a friend. But when Burke faced his old acquaintance's Triple-A team last year, Cunningham had no idea that his former teammate was the one slinging sidearm sinkers at him.
It was not until after the game that Cunningham realized. Burke recalls his friend approaching him to say, "I didn't even realize you were on the team."
Such is the transformative power of the sidearm delivery that Burke began using last spring. It was his idea to drop down to the side, realizing that the Orioles were going to cut him at age 25, at a time when the journeyman label begins to take hold. O's director of pitching development Rick Peterson, who worked with former Mets sidewinder Joe Smith in 2007, took it from there.
For Burke, who cracked the big leagues in 2009 but has not been back since, results came quickly. He shaved more than four runs off his ERA from 2011 to '12, posting a 1.53 mark over 64 2/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A, with 50 strikeouts against 13 non-intentional walks.
He also changed his repertoire to accommodate the new delivery, throwing a higher percentage of fastballs with increased sink.
"I picked it up pretty fast, to be honest with you," Burke said. "It wasn't very frustrating at all. It was pretty fast and I was definitely learning throughout the season, for sure. I'm still learning right now, but it came pretty natural."
Regardless, the Orioles granted Burke his free agency in November and the Mets snapped him up three days later, adding him to the 40-man roster so no one could select him in the Rule 5 Draft. Burke, who did not even realize at the time that he was eligible for the Rule 5, appreciated the gesture.
Being on the 40-man gives him a built-in advantage over many of the other right-handed pitchers competing for jobs in the Opening Day bullpen. Manager Terry Collins said he sees Burke more of a multi-inning option than a right-handed specialist, which could also help his chances.
That decision should come during the final week of camp. Until then, Burke will simply continue trying to surprise old acquaintances.
"A lot of guys that I've already faced don't necessarily know that," Burke said of his new delivery. "So last year I faced some guys and they were like, 'Whoa, who the heck is this?' They didn't realize it until after the fact."
Mets want to check out Valdespin in infield
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Though Jordany Valdespin may finally be growing comfortable as an outfielder, the Mets believe his immediate future lies on the infield dirt.
"He played a lot of outfield in winter ball. This spring, we need to put him back in the infield a little bit," manager Terry Collins said Saturday after Valdespin reported to camp. "We know if need be, we can play him in the outfield. We need to take a look at him in the infield right now."
Though second base is Valdespin's natural position, that may hurt his already-slim chances of making the Opening Day roster. Coming into camp, all four of the Mets' starting infielders are entrenched in their roles, with Justin Turner an overwhelming favorite to secure one bench spot. That leaves one slot open for Brandon Hicks or Brian Bixler -- and Hicks is out of Minor League options, making him the early favorite for the assignment.
Valdespin, who played mostly outfield for his Dominican winter ball team, understands his situation.
"I won't keep my head down if I don't stay on the team Opening Day," he said. "The only thing I can do is play hard and then go up. But my plan is to stay on the team on the Opening Day for all year."
Ideally, the Mets would like to see Valdespin mature both on and off the field before handing him another big league job. On the diamond, Valdespin showed a propensity for chasing pitches during his rookie season, striking out in 19 of his final 68 plate appearances. Off the field, he displayed continued immaturity this winter when he posted a Twitter picture of himself wearing a Marlins cap -- a photo that he claims his cousin posted without his consent.
Regardless of intent, the Mets hope that Valdespin grows both as a person and a player this spring.
"My game is to stay on the bases, steal bases, help my team how I can do it," Valdespin said. "That's my plan for this year. I'm prepared 100 percent in my mind, and physically too, and we'll see what happens in Spring Training."
• Poor weather conditions continue to wreak havoc on the Mets' workout schedule in Florida. The team altered its schedule twice this week due to rain, and plans to push back its Sunday workout two hours due to wind chill temperatures expected to dip into the 20s.
• Infielder Wilfredo Tovar and right-hander Jenrry Mejia were the only players yet to report to Mets camp by Saturday afternoon. Tovar, a Minor Leaguer, is expected at the complex in time for his physical exam on Sunday. Mejia is still experiencing visa issues in the Dominican Republic, with no timetable for his arrival.