Rays Sign Heath Hembree, Ben Heller, Zack Burdi To Minor League Deals

The Rays have signed three righties to minor league deals, reports Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Heath Hembree, Ben Heller and Zack Burdi will all receive invitations to major league Spring Training.

Hembree, 34, is easily the most experienced of the bunch. He’s appeared in each of the past 10 major league seasons, getting into 357 games over his career thus far. He had some really good years for the Red Sox from 2014 to 2019 but has gone into journeyman mode over the past few campaigns, suiting up for the Sox, Phillies, Mets, Reds, Pirates and Dodgers since the start of 2020.

Last year, Hembree made 26 appearances between the Bucs and Dodgers but registered a 7.36 ERA in that time. He posted matching 15.9% strikeout and walk rates, with both of those figures worse than league average. It was a disappointing season but he’s not far removed from a 2021 campaign where he struck out 34.2% of batters faced against a 9.9% walk rate. A 59% strand rate pushed his ERA up to 5.59 that year with advanced metrics feeling he deserved much better, such as a 3.15 xERA, 4.34 FIP and 3.11 SIERA.

Heller, 31, appeared in 31 major league games from 2016 to 2020, all of those with the Yankees. He has a career 2.59 ERA over those years, though that’s surely depressed by an unsustainable 98.4% strand rate. He struck out 21.7% of batters faced in that time, walking 10.9% of them and got grounders on 40.9% of balls in play. He spent some time last year with the Twins on a minor league deal, throwing 8 2/3 innings with a 9.35 ERA.

Burdi, 28 in March, was a first round selection of the White Sox in the 2016 draft. Unfortunately, injuries have taken a toll on his progress thus far, including 2017 Tommy John surgery. He eventually made 15 appearances over 2020 and 2021, throwing a combined 17 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, he posted a 7.79 ERA in that time with a 20.9% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate and 34.5% ground ball rate. He signed a minor league deal with the Nats for 2022 but was only healthy enough to throw 13 innings down on the farm, though he did post a 1.38 ERA in that small sample.

All three players will provide the Rays with some non-roster pitching depth and try to earn their way back to the majors. If either Burdi or Heller make their way onto the roster, they each still have one option year remaining, potentially giving Tampa some roster flexibility. Burdi has less than a year of service time and could be retained for future seasons cheaply, while Heller is over the three-year mark and would qualify for arbitration if holding onto a spot at season’s end. Hembree, however, is over six years of service and would qualify for free agency.

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