Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Young Guns - Victor Black

Victor Black, 24, was a catcher at Amarillo through his junior year, switching to the mound his senior campaign. The position swap worked out pretty well, as he ended up drafted by the New York Mets in the 41st round of the 2006 draft after his prep career.

He opted instead to go to Dallas Baptist University. He was their ace by his junior year, going 6-4 with a 4.16 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 88-2/3 innings. And Black didn't just work against the Patriots' Heartland Conference foes. He got the ball mid-week against Big 12 teams during the non-conference portion of DBU's schedule. Pirates scouts liked what they saw, especially his ability to miss bats.

RHP Black was selected as a supplemental pick (49th overall) following the first round of the 2009 draft by the Bucs, using the slot they were awarded for not being able to sign Tanner Scheppers the year before. He was rated by Baseball America as the #50th prospect, so he fell right about where expected. The Texan signed for around slot money, collecting a $717,000 bonus and joining the system quickly.

The Pirates started him off at State College, limiting his workload after a full college season. Although many scouts saw his big league meal ticket as a back-end reliever, the Bucs first worked him as a rotation guy, a position with more value. Black went 1-2/3.45 for the Spikes, working 31-1/3 IP with 33 K and 15 BB. His control, which had been a problem at DBU, and his big splits were early caution flags, but Baseball America still ranked him as the #6 prospect in the short-season NY-Penn League.

But that promising start fell apart in 2010. He started just two games for Low A West Virginia before he was shut down. Black had shoulder problems, and when he tried to work through them, he developed biceps tendonitis. Not only did he lose the season, but he went into the next year needing to get the strength back in his arm.

The Pirates moved Black to the bullpen to protect his shoulder. He still wasn't 100% at the start of the year, and the club kept him in extended spring training for a couple of months to rehab. He returned to West Virginia, and wasn't the same guy.

His velocity was erratic, as was his control - Black walked five batters per nine innings, and his strikeouts dropped to seven per game. He was given a late ticket to High A Bradenton, and he looked a bit, but not dramatically, better. His combined line for the year was 3-1-1/5.05 with 28 whiffs and 20 walks in 35-2/3 frames.

So in 2012, the Pirates had a 23 year old high draft choice entering his fourth season in the system who had worked just 71-1/3 innings, and not too successfully at that. In a swim-or-sink move, they assigned him to AA Altoona. Finally healthy, Black finally lived up to his projections.

He won the closer role, with his heater back in the mid-nineties and his slider again nasty. The Texan put up a slash of 2-3-13/1.65, with 85 K in just 60 innings. Black held opposing batters under the Mendoza line, and his splits, a problem earlier in his career, smoothed out. His control was still an issue, but he did cut down his walks to 4.4/nine innings.

He was a late addition to Eastern League All-Star team. Making up for lost innings, the Pirates sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he's been spotty.

Black is expected to begin 2013 at Indy, and will be added to the 40-man roster soon. If he stays healthy, he stands a good shot at becoming a Pirate sometime in 2013, depending on the ultimate fates of Hanny and Jason Grilli.

The righty throws three-quarters, and at 6'4" has a good downward delivery, generally keeping the ball in the bottom half of the zone. He's only given up four homers during his minor league career. Black works off a fastball/slider combo, shows a change up, and is experimenting with a two seamer in the AFL. His big goal should be first pitch strikes to prevent guys from laying off his stuff.

With the Pirate bullpen likely to undergo some reconstruction at the back end in 2013, it wouldn't be surprising to see Black and Bryan Morris staking a claim on the late innings some time next season.

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