Scouts had a chance to watch the right-hander pitch for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. In eight games, Black was charged with 11 earned runs on 12 hits and seven walks over 8 2/3 innings. In the Fall Stars Game, he gave up three runs on three hits and walked a batter. After that outing, he posted on Twitter: "I've had a rough time adjusting to the bullpen but you learn stuff everyday and do your best to incorporate what you've learned. #determined"
Determined is the perfect word to describe Black, ranked 19th by MLBPipeline.com on the list of top 30 Cubs prospects. This year, he began the season in Double-A Tennessee's rotation and went 2-2 with a 3.09 ERA in nine starts. But in June, he was moved to the bullpen, and Black posted a 1-3 record and 7.09 ERA in 28 games.
"I did really well as a starter, and once I got moved to the bullpen, it got in my head a little bit and I got a little shell shocked," Black said last month in Mesa, Ariz., before an AFL game. "I got hit a little bit. I think it was my third or fourth outing out of the 'pen, and I gave up a game-tying home run in the ninth and it kind of got in my head a little bit, and then I was afraid to throw anywhere near the zone."
That game was July 3 against Montgomery, when he served up a solo homer in the ninth. Black did get the win, as Tennessee's Billy McKinney hit a walk-off RBI single in the ninth. But it was the second straight outing in which he served up a late-inning homer. On June 29, Black gave up a two-run homer in the seventh against Mobile. What was encouraging was that he stayed in that game and struck out the side in the eighth.
That's where Dempster comes in. After pitching for 16 seasons, including nine in Chicago, Dempster now is a special assistant in the Cubs' front office. He went to Biloxi in early September for Tennessee's series there and took Black to lunch.
"He said, 'Dude, just go out and make your pitch and if they hit it, they hit it. Don't worry about it,'" Black said of the conversation. "It helped me free my mind of the struggles I had. The first half was really good. The second half, when I went to the bullpen, I'd do really well for a couple outings and then give up a six or seven spot, and it was like, 'Oh, no, here we go again.' Just trying to stay consistent and on that even keel was such a struggle."
Black does have an interesting arsenal of pitches. After he made his AFL debut, Mesa pitching coach Steve Connelly complimented him on his slider. Well, it's not really a slider.
"It's a work in progress," Black said. "I throw a split-change and I'll cut it, so everyone thinks it's a slider. That's been my go-to pitch. I'll cut it against righties and lefties, and it looks like a slider but it's not."
Black, 24, did strike out 101 over 86 innings during the 2015 season, an average of 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. At 5-foot-11 in his spikes, he doesn't look like a strikeout pitcher.
"I've heard it my entire life -- 'Too small to do this, too small to do that,'" Black said. "You're just adding fuel to the fire. It got to me a little bit because I always knew [teams] wanted me to be a reliever. I started doing well as a starter, and I was like, 'Dude, just keep me out there. I don't care if I'm short.'
"If they want me as a reliever, they want me as a reliever," he said of the Cubs. "Being the vertically challenged person I am, it just fuels the fire."
He definitely benefitted from his first big league Spring Training with the Cubs this year. The veteran pitchers would watch videos with Black and offer tips.
"You learn a lot from those guys, especially if you listen and take what they're saying," he said. "You have to listen and you have to think about it."
Black is hoping to show he can make the adjustment to the bullpen. When the Cubs announced the roster moves Friday, he posted on Twitter: "There is always a plan in place. Time to get back on the grind after a couple days off."