Is Heath Hembree the Next Great Giants Closer?

Closers are made, not born. That’s a mantra that has been repeated ever more frequently over the past few decades as the role of the closer has become more pronounced. The idea, of course, being that great closers aren’t drafted as such; they tend to be failed starting pitching prospects who get converted to the bullpen and see their stuff blossom with the limited innings. Mariano Rivera, who is unquestionably the greatest closer of all-time, made ten largely ineffective starts in his rookie season before the Yankees shifted him to a bullpen role for good. Even these days, as the closer becomes more and more of a celebrity role, teams rarely draft pitchers with the specific intent of developing them for the ninth-inning role.

Take the Giants in recent years. Sergio Romo, their current closer, was a 28th round pick who made 24 minor league starts before the team turned him into a reliever. Once he moved to the bullpen, he broke out, of course. Before him, Brian Wilson was drafted as a starter and made three starts in his first year in the pros, but the team figured his live (and somewhat erratic) arm would work better in the late innings. Robb Nen, perhaps the best closer in the team’s history, started in 80 of his 88 minor league appearances, then made four starts as a rookie with the Texas Rangers and the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins (I can’t even picture that).

So while the Giants generally find their closers instead of breeding them, they may have one major exception on hand in Heath Hembree. Hembree is a 25-year-old right-hander who has spent most of the past two seasons at AAA. He has spent the past few years on many Giants top ten prospect lists, and his imposing strikeout numbers in the minors have sparked the interest of fans and pundits alike. With plenty of seasoning in the minor leagues, he’s now a favorite to make the Giants’ bullpen out of Spring Training.

As opposed to Romo, Wilson, et al, the Giants appear to have viewed Hembree as a reliever or closer from the start. Drafted in the fifth round in the 2010 draft, Hembree was immediately installed in the bullpen in rookie ball and saved three games in twelve appearances. The next season, in 2011, Hembree emerged as a full-blown closer-in-the-making, saving 38 games across two levels, and striking out 78 batters in 53.1 innings. In four seasons in the minors, Hembree has made 162 appearances, every one of them out of the bullpen.

Hembree got a late-season major league cup of coffee last September and impressed everybody, striking out twelve batters in 7.2 innings without allowing a run. In AAA last year, he fanned 63 batters in 55.1 innings and saved 31 games. In short, there’s nothing for Hembree left to prove in the minors. He’ll get the opportunity to win a job in the bullpen this Spring, and barring a major faceplant of some sort, he should enter the 2014 season as an integral component of the team’s relief core. With Sergio Romo heading into free agency after this season as well, it should only be a matter of time before Hembree is being called upon to close out wins in the ninth inning.

They’ll need him, too. The Giants’ bullpen, as currently constructed, is chock-full of question marks. Fangraphs recently published an article that stated that the Giants have the only bullpen that projects to be below replacement level. For those who have yet to be indoctrinated, below replacement level is very, very bad. Behind Romo is a whole lot of shakiness, as Santiago Casilla’s plummeting strikeout rate is a major concern, and no one seems to know what to make of Jean Machi. The team also recently lost Chad Gaudin to the Phillies, and George Kontos is coming off of a poor year.

So the time is now for Hembree, who is as exciting a relief prospect the Giants have had since, well…Romo in 2008. With his lively fastball and above-average slider, Hembree profiles as a potential impact reliever, and it’s easy to see one of two scenarios playing out. Either the Giants contend and Hembree becomes a lights-out eighth inning guy as the Giants fight for the playoffs, or the Giants don’t contend, trade Romo at midseason, and Hembree becomes the closer for the next five years.