Tuesday, February 21, 2012

OTF Top 30: No. 4, Heath Hembree, RHP

No. 4: Heath Hembree, right-handed pitcher

Age: 23
Drafted: Fifth round (168 overall) of the 2010 MLB Draft
College: College of Charleston
2011 Regular Season numbers: 26 games, 24.2 IP, 16 hits allowed, 2 runs allowed, 12 walks, 44 strikeouts, 0.73 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 1.74 FIP, 3.67 BB/K (High-A). 28 games, 28.2 IP, 20 hits allowed, 11 runs allowed, 13 walks, 34 strikeouts, 2.83 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 2.64 FIP, 2.62 FIP (Double-A)
2011 Fall/Winter League numbers: None

Why You Should Know about Hembree in 2012:

With Zack Wheeler being traded for Carlos Beltran last July, Hembree emerges as the Giants' best pitching prospect in the system. While a power reliever being the prized pitching prospect isn't necessarily a good sign, Hembree is the kind of prospect who could be making his debut in the Majors as early as this season. Furthermore, with Brian Wilson going through a multitude of health-related issues, and going to be a free agent after next season, Hembree gives the Giants some leverage, as it is totally plausible to think Hembree taking up Wilson's mantle in the closer's spot should he leave town for a higher contract.

What are Hembree's Strengths as a Prospect?

Under the radar in 2010 (he was a fifth round pick in the 2010 draft), Keith Law of ESPN remarked that Hembree was a sleeper prospect in the Giants system when he came out with his Giants Top Prospects list. Law proved to be right, as Hembree dominated the California League and did extremely well in the Eastern League in his first full year. While Hembree did post excellent numbers in the rookie league after signing (he struck out 22 and walked zero...that's right ZERO!), not many people expected Hembree to have the breakout he did at both levels last year.

Hembree's strengths as a prospect are his plus fastball and impeccable ability to strike people out. His fastball goes in the 93-97 MPH range, topping out at 99 MPH according to reports. Furthermore, he has a power sliders that sits in the 84-86 MPH range, according to scouts. This lethal combination led to a 16.05 and 10.67 percent strikeout percentage in High-A and Double-A last season, which is exactly the kind of K/9 rates you want to see out of a potential closer.

Furthermore, in addition to striking out a lot of people, Hembree does not give up a lot of hits and displays above average command for a reliever. His WHIP was 1.16 and 1.17 in the California and Eastern League, respectively, and his BB/K ratios were also solid at 3.7 and 2.6. Hembree has worked hard to get to where he is currently at as a prospect, as coaches have helped smooth Hembree's mechanics and work on not overthrowing, according to Rob Gordon of the Minor League Baseball analyst. With this kind of upward progression, there seems to be a lot of promise for Hembree in the future, especially in the Giants bullpen, which has been a strong point of the Giants' success the past couple of seasons.

Where Might Hembree Struggle as a Prospect?

Though his stuff is absolutely dominating, Hembree at the core remains a two pitch pitcher with a reliever ceiling, which isn't all that valuable at the end of the day. With his stuff, one would hope that the Giants would be able to stretch more innings out of him, but Hembree hadn't pitched many innings in college after bouncing around from South Carolina to junior college to the College of Charleston in a three year span. Hence, Hembree's best case scenario remains as a closer, which doesn't leave him much room for error when it comes to his value and status as a prospect.

Hembree sports a big frame at six-foot, four inches and 210 pounds (he actually lost 10 pounds since becoming a professional), but, according to Perfect Game.com writer Allan Simpson, "he's far from a finished product." His biggest Achilles Heels has to be his control and inconsistency in command. Here's what Simpson said in a writeup on Hembree when he was drafted in 2010:

"Despite his explosive fastball and powerful, athletic frame, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander is far from a finished product, and his end-of-game role for the College of Charleston has it difficult for higher-level scouts to see him. In 21 appearances covering 23 innings (through mid-May), he was 5-2, 6.17 with four saves and had walked 15 while striking out 33. Though Hembree’s fastball is his primary weapon, it can often be straight and college hitters have teed off on it..."

The same reports have been true for Hembree as a professional.  While his strikeouts rates have been impressive for a reliever, his control (walk) rates haven't. In San Jose, he posted a walk rate of 4.38 and in Richmond it was 4.08, only a .30 improvement. Now, considering it was his first full year as a professional, a little slack can be considered (especially since his college career was so limited and sporadic). Nonetheless, if he wants to be rated as an elite reliever at the Minor and Major League level, he'll need to decrease those walk rates and find a little bit more control as a pitcher. With only two "real" pitches (he's starting to develop a changeup, but it's far from polished), and a fastball that has been described as "straight" and "hittable" by scouts, he can't afford to put too many batters on base by balls.

Another red flag that hasn't really showed up so far as a professional but could rear it's ugly head in the future is Hembree's injury history. Hembree suffered a torn ACL as a college senior and struggled to find himself a spot in the rotation or bullpen at South Carolina. Though he bounced back in junior college and at Charleston, the injury history could be an issue, simply because of Hembree's large frame, and one never knows with knee injuries, especially when they occur at such a young age. We have seen prospects bounce back from them before, but we have also seen injuries hinder prospects from reaching their full potential as well.

Grades on Hembree's Tools

Fastball: 19/20 (He's got a power fastball, and it is definitely his plus-plus pitch. It can go as high as 99 MPH, but it sits at 93-97 MPH regularly, which is still very impressive. It can be pretty straight when he's overthrowing, but it seems like his pitching coaches have helped him refrain from doing that too often. With long fingers and a solid frame, Hembree has the potential to keep the firepower behind his fastball for a good while.)
Slider: 18/20 (The slider has gotten good reports, as it has good cutting action and sits in the 84-88 MPH range. It has been described as a four-plus out of five pitch, according to Gordon of the MLBA.)
Changeup: 14/20 (A fairly new pitch for him, as his repertoire in college and last season was his fastball and slider. He used it rarely in 2011, and it hasn't seemed to impress people so far. With his fastball velocity though, it could be a very effective pitch with some development.)
Mechanics: 18/20 (Mechanics were a bit of a question mark for Hembree when he was drafted, but it seems like he and the coaching staffs in the Giants organization have done a good job with him so far. For the most part, his delivery is smooth and he isn't putting too much effort out either. When you watch him on tape, his pitching motion looks solid and consistent, which is pretty much all you can ask for from a pitching prospect at this point.)
Command/Control: 16/20 (The strikeout rates certainly help him greatly in this category. However, walking over four batters every nine innings isn't exactly a promising sign for a reliever, especially one that is expected to close out games. Of course, his control isn't awful by any stretch, but as stated before, if he wants to be an elite reliever, he has to start cutting down the walks.)
Ceiling: 16/20 (Hembree could be a shut-down closer or setup man at the Major League level, but that's as high as his ceiling gets. At 23 years old and with two plus pitches and a sub-par changeup, Hembree doesn't exactly fit the mold of a guy who could learn to be a starting pitcher at the professional level. Of course, that's not a bad thing, but as mentioned earlier, it leaves very little room for error.)
Health/Makeup: 17/20 (Injury set back his college career a bit after tearing his ACL as a high school senior, but the injury bug hasn't hit him since. That being said, he hasn't pitched a lot of innings in either his professional or college career, so how his arm holds up as he progresses through the system and eats more innings will be something for the Giants brass and fans to pay attention to. He transferred twice in college and wasn't exactly a high end draft pick, but he hasn't let those things deflate him and he has put up a nice professional career so far.)

Overall Grade: B
Projection: Middle relief with closer/setup man potential.

Summary: Brian Wilson's injury issues are setting up a lot of attention on Hembree, which could be both good and bad. Last year, Hembree was a bit under the radar and was able to succeed. Now, with more tape and scouting reports on him, he won't go as unnoticed into 2012 as he did into 2011. Nonetheless, his plus fastball and slider, big frame, and history of success point to a career heading in the right direction. With Wilson a free agent after next season, it is entirely possible that Hembree could see some action in the Giants bullpen in 2012 and perhaps have a shot at the closer's spot in 2013 if he experiences Major League success this season.

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