Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Victor Black Q&A

Before Sunday's game in Lakewood, WB2PB got the chance to talk with a couple of the Pirates top prospects playing at Class A West Virginia. Today's installment is Victor Black. Black took one on the chin the night before, telling me he "lost the game for his teammates" the night before, allowing four runs (three earned) in a 5-4 loss to the Blueclaws. He still took the time to talk about that night, his season and his future in the Pirates organization.

Victor Black
Height: 6-3     Weight: 185     
Age: 23           Position: Pitcher      
Throws: Right
2011 statistics: 2-1, 5.14 ERA, 21 games, 
Opp. BA .259, 16 BB, 23 SO

How do the pitchers currently on the team and in the organization deal with the pressure of the Pirates recent drafts being so pitching heavy?
Without a doubt you are seeing what they've been investing in for the past three years with Neal (Huntington) being the new GM and their emphasis on pitching and development there. It's bleeding through into the big leagues and you're seeing guys winning. They're enjoying it. It's fun to play baseball again. As a pitcher who has been blessed and has been invested in, there is a gratefulness there. It would be foolish to not steward the opportunity I've been given. I'm not worried about the fact that there are 40 new pitchers coming in with each draft. They took me. They invested in me and now it's my responsibility to the organization and to the people I play with to give it my all and make it my best.

Talk to me about some of the differences you've faced as a bullpen guy rather than a starter.
Nights like last night is what I really struggle with. I pretty much lost the game for us last night but they say that the best lessons are learned from the negative in life. I got up this morning, went through my workout and just try to shake it off. It's not easy but it's one of the lessons I have to learn from at this level to get better. i really need to get better at trusting in my approach and staying focused on what I'm supposed to be doing more than anything else.

The trade deadline just passed last week. Even at low-A, do the guys talk about it in the clubhouse among yourselves or do you think about it at all?
There is always the anxst about it because you understand that you aren't in college, you aren't in high school anymore. It's a business. In a shallow way of saying it, you are a property. They are looking out and they saw a glimpse of success and they are fighting to win and they were in a race and they are going to keep fighting. They look at it as "Hey, we have a shot, maybe it's the time to (trade a prospect). At this level not so much. Guys talk about it but even my buddy Aaron Baker (traded to the Orioles for Derrek Lee July 30) who I've been playing with since summer ball in high school, you see him go. I sent him a text and it's sad to see him go, but it's more of an anticipation of getting to go somewhere to maybe move up or get another opportunity. As long as other teams want you, you still have a shot at this. It's a big bragging right I guess.

What are you working on at this level? What's going well? What's not?
We've basically ditched the slider and we've taken a different approach. I have a straight fastball and a straight change. Due to the rehab last year, the changeup came about. Before I just couldn't do it and during rehab, the easest thing on your arm is a changeup. There's no stiffness, there's no tightness and you aren't trying to force anything. So I just threw it, threw it and threw it and when I came up here, we went to the straight fastball-changeup. I started to throw it and they were swinging through it and I thought 'Hey.' Now that' been the approach and it's been effective when I embrace it fully. I'm still trying to get to the point where I go for it all the way and trust it.

How's life in West Virginia compared to back home in Texas?
West Virginia and Charleston is like any other town I've been able to spend time in. It's not a small town but the people are very nice. You hold doors and greet people and go about your business. My big deal with baseball is that this is what I love to do but it's also my job. But if you get consumed in it and you make it your life ... baseball is really about beating the odds. For hitters, it's about failure and how many times you don't fail. When I get off the field, I just want to feel like a normal person. You have another life and you don't want your identity to be caught up in baseball. A career can be 15 years if you are lucky, and if you are consumed with baseball, then what do you live for?  You can't live like that.

How often does your family get to see you play?
I have a different style of family where I have three sisters who all play volleyball. One plays Olympic, one is about to get married and the other is going into college this year. My parents are consumed with volleyball. My dad would drive down to see me playing college on weeknights and drive back. Neither one of them yet has gotten the chance to see me play since i signed to play with the Pirates and that just kills my Mom. I tried to get her up last week and she was moving my sister in to college. Other than that, my girlfriend has come to visit and it's been a blessing. She's super important so....

Was there anything that surprised you about pro ball that isn't as glamorous as you may have thought?
I played in the Northwest League after my freshman year of college and they were like 'OK, now we jump onto a bus for a 13-hour ride to Canada.' I thought 'Is this something I really want to do' but this is my passion and this is what I really want to do. The bus rides haven't been a shock but I still struggle with sleeping. I just try to keep myself entertained. The only thing that came as a shock was when I joined up with my first team I came in and said 'Coach, my name is Victor' and he turned to me and said 'Don't ever call me coach again, I'm your manager.'

What are you goals for where you want to be on April 1, 2012?
I just want to be a place where I eventually can give Pittsburgh the best opportunity. I want to be where they are comfortable with me to a point that wherever they need me, I'm there and ready to go.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pirates next lesson: Learning how to win

Living in the Philadelphia area, it's been hard to avoid all the success that has come the way of the Philadelphia Phillies. But for Pirates fans looking toward that standard of success in the Bucs' future need to exercise just a little patience.

Even as players like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard became household names, the Phillies were struggling to overcome the Braves and even win games late in the season against the Marlins that would have put them in the playoffs before they finally got there in 2007. And then they lost to the Rockies....

The Phillies organizational plan is totally different, as they have developed their players. They've also been in position to acquire high-priced talent by trading minor league talent and then being able to afford to keep it because they have a very good TV deal and have over 180 straight sellouts.

The Pirates had to hit the reset button in 2008. There was very little talent in the organization, and almost zero pitching. The Bucs have started to take steps to build up the quality pitching in the organization while allowing the couple of good hitters they have to play everyday and began to flourish. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are strong building blocks. Pedro Alvarez has struggled at the start but will certainly get there. The Phillies had their share of fill-ins. Jim Thome was there before Ryan Howard and couldn't get them over the top. They acquired players like Eric Milton, David Bell, Freddy Garcia....all who didn't work out.

The team has high hopes for Starling Marte in Double-A to be a corner outfielder with speed and power. Jose Tabata has proven he can be a quality everyday player when healthy. Is Alex Presley the next Shane Victorino? Maybe. Victorino never really gave the impression of being the player he is now in the minor leagues.

And the Pirates have had their demons. Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. The Brewers, especially in Milwaukee, is another. It's a learning experience that Clint Hurdle was brought in to teach. The Pirates are now facing the pressure of all the world watching, coming off seven tough road games against the NL's best. It's a new situation for everyone in the clubhouse to now be expected to win games. And this team, especially the starting pitching, has played better than anyone expected. A jump of 10 wins with team's talent could be expected by to still be over .500 is a remarkable achievement that has ridiculous thoughts placed in the heads of Pirates and baseball fans alike. It's something young players need to adjust to and learn how to deal with.

Remember, this team was 57-105. Even if they would win just 75 games this season, it would be the biggest season turnaround since the 1958 Pirates improved by 22 games over the 1957 squad. And Pirates fans know a World Series title followed that just two years later.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ludwick, Lee MIGHT make Pirates better....

Pittsburgh Pirates fans may have been hoping for a big bill when general manager Neal Huntington made his way to the checkout line at the trade deadline market. It's been since 1997 that the Bucs weren't stocking the shelves but actually leaving with some of the groceries.  And as a first time in Huntington's four-year tenure, the first-time buyer was accused of sticker shock.

Huntington seemed to feel the effects of those 18 straight losing seasons while shopping, with at least one big fish not wanting to play for the Pirates. He also didn't want to mortgage the future for the present. He admitted after Sunday's deadline in a conference call that maybe the Bucs deserved a little criticism for undervaluing the impact of a two-month rental player and how the team may have been too eager to hold on to "six years worth of major league performance for two months of someone who may or may not make a positive impact."

However, NH stayed on goal while acquiring veteran hitters Ryan Ludwick from San Diego and Baltimore's Derrek Lee, sacrificing very little and utilizing some of the increased revenue to help out the club offensively. However there are certainly questions about both guys.

Ludwick appears to be the biggest example of the Pirates increased spending, with the team picking up all of the remaining $2.2 million on his 2011 contract before he becomes a free agent after the season. Ludwick has hit .238 this season but has 11 HRs and 62 RBIs. That sounds very good until you take a look inside those numbers a bit. Just three HRs since June 1 in 200 plate appearances.

"We feel like we've added two impact hitters, two good guys in the clubhouse and guys who have played meaningful games late in the season that still have gas left in the tank," Huntington said.  "Derrek is swinging the bat better late in the season as he's gotten healthy and Ryan will do better just getting out of San Diego. No offense to San Diego but that's a tremendous pitcher's ballpark.

Ludwick has hit .258 outside of San Diego's Petco Park but he only hit .172 in July. Ludwick is a player who hit 37 HRs in 2008 and another 22 in 2009. It's safe to say the Pirates are hoping the change of scenary will bolster his production.

'"Ryan was brought in here to help us win games. As we move forward, he should be able to help us," NH said when asked if Ludwick will play everyday.  "Our scouts saw the abilities that make him a successful hitter."

Lee is a career .282 hitter but has seen his average decrease tremendously since winning a batting title in 2005. Coming off a .260 year between the Cubs and Braves last year, Lee has hit .246 with 12 HRs in Baltimore. Both of those numbers, despite being a bit below average among baseball's first baseman, is a tremendous upgrade to the Pirates lineup. But how much Lee has left is a big question. He's a career .297 hitter at PNC Park but just .246 from 2009-2011.

There are questions for the Pirates but the strongest part of this deal appears to be what the acquisitions cost. Not one minor league pitcher was traded away, with Baltimore settling for a Class A hitter in Aaron Baker, who was no higher than fourth on the Pirates organizational depth chart at 1B. The Ludwick deal is a player to be named later or cash heading back to San Diego.

Good for NH either way. He certainly attempted to address the team's offensive needs. With Ryan Doumit almost ready to come off the DL, the return of at least Alex Presley in the near future and eventually Jose Tabata in left field and the hopes for Pedro Alvarez's late 2010 power bat, the Bucs are a better team than they were on Sunday. Sitting 4 1/2 games out in the NL Central, the question now is are they good enough to climb back into the divisional race after a brutal road trip through Atlanta and Philadelphia accompanied by the Brewers beating up on the Astros and Cubs.