Is Heath Hembree the Closer of the Future for the Red Sox?
In return, the Sox received two minor league pitchers, 25-year-old righty Heath Hembree and southpaw Edwin Escobar. Unlike Escobar, Hembree has pitched in the big leagues before (albeit just 7.2 innings last season as a September call-up), and is going to be the focus here, as he has the potential to be the Sox closer next season - and possibly even at the end of this season.
Hembree has been a reliever since he debuted in the minors in 2010 for the Giants’ rookie league affiliate, and has maintained this role since, never starting a game. He’s posted decent numbers in his minor league career, and has never had a strikeout percentage (K%) of lower than 21.6%.
His K% this season is 27.1% in 39.1 innings pitched (IP) for the Giants’ triple-A affiliate. His earned run average (ERA) and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) this season are both way too high for a reliever (3.89 and 4.13 respectively), but the Pacific Coast League (PCL) - where Hembree pitches - is largely known as a hitters league, so he gets a small break there.
His strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) of 19.4% is 17th best among all pitchers in the PCL with at least 30 innings pitched. Hembree dominates righties, posting a 1.46 ERA, 27 strikeouts to just two walks, and has yet to give up a home run. However, against lefties, Hembree has a 7.98 ERA, 19 strikeouts to 11 walks, and has given up five home runs (numbers courtesy of milb.com). Getting lefties out regularly will need to be a focus of his moving forward, especially if he wants to become a closer at the big league level.
Hembree in 2014
This season, Hembree is serving as his team’s closer, racking up 18 saves, with the next closest pitcher on his team recording just three. His 18 saves are also second best in the PCL. Hembree has been the closer on basically every team he’s pitched for in the minors, and has recorded 107 saves in the 214 minor league games pitched. Despite only decent minor league numbers, his performance stood out enough to gain the attention of the Boston brass. While both the save and the win are highly overrated individual stats, teams still pay attention to them and tend to overvalue both. If you don’t believe me, watch closely how managers handle their bullpens and how, more often than not, they misuse their closer.
Regardless, Hembree has shown that he is able to “close” out games and already has a “closer mentality” since it’s basically all he’s done his professional career. He doesn’t have to go through the process of being groomed into a closer that some rookies have to if they were starters in the minors without closing experience. This could be significant because the Red Sox will likely have an opening there next season or possibly even this season.
Koji Uehara has had another impressive season closing for the Sox, despite their woes and overall poor play as a team. As a 39-year-old free agent at the end of the season, Uehara is unlikely to be re-signed by the Sox since his performance this season will warrant a raise (that is, if they don’t trade him first). Either way, there will likely be an opening at closer next season, and Hembree has as good a shot as anyone on the Sox’ current roster of claiming that role.
Besides Uehara, there are six relievers who have pitched 31.2 innings or more for the Sox this year (the other five have combined for just 19.3 IP), and minus Edward Mujica’s 43 career saves (37 of which came last season), the rest of this staff has 11 career saves between them. Also, three of them (in addition to Uehara) will be free agents at the end of the season (Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Craig Breslow), thus creating an inexperienced (in terms of closing) bullpen. The Sox have been using Mujica in middle relief or when they are losing, so they obviously don’t see him as a potential closer. Unless the Sox decide to bring in a closer during free agency, the job is up for grabs, and this is where Hembree enters the picture.
Hembree pitched well in his nine games and 7.2 innings for the Giants last season, not allowing a run and posting a 41.4 K%. Although his innings pitched at the MLB level are far too few for solid projections, his minor league numbers suggest that he could be more than serviceable as a closer. With nothing to play for this season, the Sox should call-up Hembree in September and let him audition for the 2015 closer role. If he pitches well and shows that he is able to get both lefties and righties out, the job could be his to lose.