The Pirates have designated right-hander Heath Hembree for assignment, per a team announcement. The move clears a spot on the 40-man and active rosters for veteran righty Jerad Eickhoff, whose contract has been formally selected from Triple-A Indianapolis (as was originally reported yesterday).
Signed to a one-year, $2.125MM contract as a free agent back in mid-March, Hembree came to the Bucs as a potential late-inning arm with ample experience as a big league setup man. From 2015-19, Hembree racked up 238 innings of 3.59 ERA ball and notched 44 holds (plus two saves) as a stalwart option in the Red Sox’ late-inning relief corps. He became increasingly homer-prone in 2020-21, however, leading to an unsightly 6.43 ERA over those two seasons combined.
That number didn’t deter the Pirates from taking a low-cost look at a pitcher whose strikeout rate soared to a career-high 34.4% during the 2021 season. The uptick in strikeouts was accompanied by a 95.5 mph average fastball — a significant jump from his 2019-20 levels and the highest mark he’d posted since a career-best 95.7 mph average back in 2017. Hembree also boasted high-end spin rate on his fastball and above-average spin on his breaking ball, all of which surely combined to pique Pittsburgh’s interest.
Things simply haven’t panned out with the Bucs, however, as the 33-year-old has logged an ugly 7.16 ERA with more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) over the life of 16 1/3 innings. Hembree’s average fastball velocity has dipped back down to 94.2 mph, and he’s allowed runs in eight of his 20 appearances with the team. Along the way, he missed two weeks with a calf strain, and since returning, he’s walked five batters in three innings.
The Pirates will have a week to trade Hembree, pass him through outright waivers or release him. It’s unlikely that a team claims him, however, given the $1.23MM that’s still remaining on his contract. Even if Hembree clears outright waivers, he has enough service time to reject an outright assignment while still retaining the remainder of that salary owed to him. At that point, he could become a free agent and sign with any team. A new team would only be responsible for paying him the prorated portion of the league minimum, with the rest of his salary still coming out of the Pirates’ pockets.