Last week I took a look at three power arm prospects who could be handling the 9th inning soon for their major league teams. In that article I profiled Detroit’s Bruce Rondon, Toronto’s Marcus Stroman and Seattle’s Carter Capps. Today I thought I’d continue with that theme by looking at a few more players with similar potential who are the property of National League organizations.
Heath Hembree, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Hembree was a 5th round pick in 2010 out of the College of Charleston – a very underrated baseball school. The South Carolina institution has had three or more players drafted every year since 2005. The school hasn’t had a player taken in the 1st round, but they have had three 2nd rounders and also saw current Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner taken in the 3rd round. Hembree was the Closer for a Cougars team that made a run to the NCAA Regional Finals his draft year. A torn right meniscus in his knee and irregular usage somewhat limited his innings in college, but he generated a lot of buzz leading up to the draft. After being picked by the Giants the fireballer then struck out 22 batters in his 11 inning short season pro debut that year. He’s largely continued that success over the last couple seasons.
Hembree is a true power arm with a typical power reliever arsenal. He throws a hard fastball in the mid 90’s and up that has some late arm side run. The pitch is difficult to elevate as his height (6’4″) and high arm slot help create good downward plane. His best secondary pitch is a power slide piece but he’s flashed a solid change up, too. While Hembree has the pure stuff and many of the qualities you expect to see in a Closer, I really need to see some improvements in his command and control (especially of the fastball) before I’d hand him the ball in the 9th.
- Path to Playing Time: Hembree lost some development time in 2012 with a flexor tendon strain, but I don’t think it delays his ETA much. The stuff is basically good enough to help a major league team right now. Hembree has only thrown a little over 100 innings as a pro, though, so he won’t be hurt by some more time in AAA. One would think there’s a strong chance we see the right-hander up with the big league club this year. Most teams would like to have another power arm to use in the middle innings and San Francisco is no exception. Save opportunities probably aren’t in the offing for 2013. Yet, with the quality of his raw stuff and some refinements Hembree could soon become a trusted option for Manager Bruce Bochy.
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, Chicago Cubs
Vizcaino was signed by the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2007. He rose up prospect lists while with New York and there was much grumbling when he was sent to Atlanta along with Melky Cabrera for pitcher Javier Vasquez. Disappointingly, Vizcaino tore the UCL (Tommy John ligament) in his pitching elbow and ended up missing the 2012 season. Last summer the Braves sent the injured Vizcaino to the Cubs for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. It’s rare to see a trade like that happen, but I admired the bold play by Chicago.
Vizcaino is another pure power arm that has reportedly reached triple digits. In 17 career major league games his average fastball velocity is 96.57 mph (per brooks baseball). The pitch features late life and isn’t a straight 96. In terms of secondary pitches, the breaking ball might be even better than the fastball. It’s a plus curve with tight spin and late, biting downward break. He also has good feel for a change up with strong drop and fade. Command and control were somewhat already question marks in his game before the injury, and they often take a while to return post-Tommy John surgery.
- Path to Playing Time: Vizcaino isn’t pitching yet but is expected to be ready to return to the mound sometime during the 2013 season. It’s possible he may even return straight to the big league club following a rehab assignment. While some talent evaluators would like to have seen him get a chance to start, the injury along with pre-existing durability and mechanical concerns all seem to be pushing Vizcaino ever further towards the pen. If he can stay healthy there isn’t a better long term candidate for Saves in the Cubs system. It’s worth noting that incumbent Closer Carlos Marmol already ceded the job to Kyuji Fujikawa.
Vic Black, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
A college starter turned pro reliever, Black was a first round pick by the Pirates in 2009 out of Dallas Baptist University. Much like Hembree and Vizcaino, Black throws hard. He’s been known to reach triple digits and comfortably sits mid 90’s. Throwing hard isn’t necessarily a requirement to profile as a relief Ace. There have been many successful Closers who didn’t throw all that hard (Trevor Hoffman comes to mind). All things being equal, I do prefer the hard throwers, though. After all, we know that velocity does correlate well with strikeouts, and we also know that strikeouts correlate well with success. Still, as Dave Cameron notes in the first article linked:
[I]t’s important to know that if you’re trying to predict strikeout rate, velocity is about 1/4 of what you need to account for. That makes it likely to be the biggest factor, but it’s not so dominating as to exclude the other things besides throwing hard. A high velocity fastball is a good thing, but it is definitely not the only thing.
All three prospects discussed in this piece need to improve the rest of their games to let their velocity play against major league hitters. One big thing velocity does for a pitcher is allow him to get away with mistakes more often. If a pitcher misses middle-in with a 99 mph fastball that is a lot harder for a hitter to do something with than the same pitch at 89 mph. Black and the other two pitchers discussed in this piece throw hard and do have a greater margin for error because of it.
Other than the heater, Black also throws a hard, shallow cut-slider. The fastball is undeniably his primary weapon, though. The major flaw in Black’s game is that he has a lot of effort in his delivery and it prevents him from repeating his timing and maintaining a consistent release point. I doubt command and control will ever be a strength of his game, but the stuff is just so good he can be a successful big league relief pitcher despite that. The herky-jerky mechanics can work in his favor to some effect, too. The ball explodes out of his hand late and it makes him more difficult for hitters to pick up.
- Path to Playing Time: Black is already 25 years old and he spent a full season at double-A Altoona last year. While his game could use more polish, I’m not convinced there’s a whole lot of more room for growth here, and I think he can already get big leaguers out. The Pirates probably have worse relief options on their active roster right now, but Black has some improvements to make before he’s ready to pitch high leverage innings.
Thanks for reading – AS
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