Sunday, June 5, 2011

OTF's 32 Most Interesting Prospects: No. 14, Heath Hembree, RHP

It's been a while since I added to the list. Mostly I have been busy with some work stuff, so that is why the posts have been so inconsistent as of late. However, I should have most of June to post, so I'll have free time to make two posts a day starting in a week.

Anyways, number 14 in the list is Heath Hembree, a power reliever who may have the best stuff out of any pitcher in the Giants minor league system. That being said, despite his power repertoire, Hembree is still a raw commodity of sorts, and there is some concern how he will fare as he moves up the Giants system because his pitch repertoire is so limited as of now.

Hembree originally started his career at South Carolina, but transferred to junior college after 2008 and then made the transition to the College of Charleston in 2010. In his only year in Charleston, he displayed amazing strikeout stuff, as he punched out 42 batters in 29 innings of work. However, despite his strong ability to strike guys out, he also had some control and command problems, as he posted an ERA of 6.52, a WHIP of 1.76, a BB/9 of 5.6 and a K/BB ratio of 2.3. Still though, despite the limited innings in college, scouts were impressed by his stuff and ability, as Baseball America said this in their profile of Hembree in their Prospect Handbook:

"Hembree was a draft curiosity as a seldom-used closer at the College of Charleston, with rumors in the scouting community that he could hit 100 mph. But he also walked 18 in 29 innings and didn't have much track record, and he missed his senior year of high school with a torn ACL he sustained in a football game."

Despite the questions, his size (6-foot, 4-inches and 205 pounds) and velocity prompted the Giants to take a waiver on him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. In his debut season in Arizona, Hembree struck out 22 batters in 11 innings, and posted an ERA and WHIP of 0.82. What was even more surprising was Hembree's newfound control as he walked zero batters in his 11 innings of work (that's right ZERO).

Of course, 11 innings is such a short sample, but the strong performance in rookie ball suddenly garnered him some attention from prospect analysts everywhere. Baseball America ranked him as the 19th best prospect in the Giants system in their Prospect Handbook, the Minor League Baseball Analyst rated him as the 14th best Giants prospect, and John Sickels ranked him 17 in his Giants Top-20 list. Even ESPN prospect analyst and former Blue Jays front office member Keith Law said Hembree was the Giants' "sleeper" prospect in 2011. This is what Law said in his writeup about Hembree:

"Heath Hembree was a fifth round pick who barely pitched this Spring for College of Charleston, then dominated the Arizona League in his brief time there, striking out 22 of 41 batters without a walk. He hit 98 repeatedly in instructional league in September."

While there was some pressure on Hembree to perform this year with the influx of higher expectations, he has stepped it up and performed admirably this season in the Cal League. He is posting a 0.87 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP in 20.2 innings of work. Furthermore, the strikeout stuff and solid control and command he displayed in Arizona is still evident in San Jose, as he has struck out 38 batters, walked only 9 and posted a K/BB ratio of 4.22. Hembree has been the Giants' go-to guy in the ninth, as he has accumulated 18 saves this year.

There is a lot to like about Hembree. He is a big, strong pitcher with a power fastball and a power slider (it was graded a four-plus by Rob Gordon in the Minor League Baseball Analyst 2011 annual). Furthermore, he knows how to make batters miss, he doesn't give up many hits (he has only a H/9 of 7.0 this year) and his control and command have been sterling thus far. The only concern I have is that I am concerned about his limited pitch repertoire. He's a two-pitch pitcher for the most part, though there have been reports that he has added a changeup to his arsenal. (Apparently in instructional league the Giants asked him to pitch his changeup 90 percent of the time, and according to Baseball America, it wasn't a "wasted effort.") However, one has to wonder how a two-pitch pitcher will do as he advances in the Giants system. Double-A will be a very telling sign of how he'll project as a pitcher, though considering how limited his experience is on the mound in the past few years, I doubt we'll see Hembree earn a promotion to Richmond this season. He'll probably transition to the Eastern League sometime next year, simply because I'm sure the Giants brass wants to see how he can pitch over a full season at one level.

Hembree is still relatively young, as he is only 22 years old and just a year removed from college. That bodes well in his favor, and allows the Giants to stay patient with Hembree and develop him as a pitcher. They don't need to rush him, and that will only result in good things for Hembree as he continues to gain more professional pitching experience.

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