Pirates sign 1B Vogelbach, RHP Hembree to 1-year contracts

March 15th, 2022

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Pirates general manager Ben Cherington addressed the media on Monday afternoon, he expressed a desire to acquire depth. Less than 24 hours later, Cherington continued the process of fulfilling those desires.

The Pirates announced on Tuesday morning that they signed infielder and right-hander to one-year deals, providing much-needed reinforcements in the lineup and bullpen. Right-handers Blake Cederlind and Nick Mears were placed on the 60-day injured list to clear the two 40-man roster spots.

Per a source, Vogelbach's contract will pay him a guaranteed $1 million with an option for a second year. His base salary for this year is $800,000, and if he is bought out, he will earn an additional $200,000. If his second-year option is picked up, he will earn $1.5 million. The deal also comes with $400,000 in incentives. Hembree's deal is much simpler; one-year, $2.125 million, per source.

Vogelbach, 29, is a strong candidate to be the Pirates’ designated hitter come Opening Day. Pittsburgh is hoping it can tap into the 2019 version of Vogelbach, who slugged 30 home runs and was named an All-Star for Seattle. Across 258 plate appearances last year with the Brewers, Vogelbach hit nine home runs with a 101 wRC+, continuing to complement his pop with plate discipline.

With Vogelbach in the fold, the Pirates suddenly have a lot more options at their disposal. Pittsburgh could employ a combination of Vogelbach and Yoshi Tsutsugo, who reported to Bradenton on Tuesday, at first base and DH. The Pirates could have Vogelbach at first, Tsutsugo in left field and Ben Gamel or Bryan Reynolds at DH on days where they need rest. There’s also the option of starting Michael Chavis at first base with Tsutsugo or Vogelbach at DH. Regardless of the specifics, manager Derek Shelton has choices.

The Pirates’ mixing and matching on any given day will likely be based on the opposing pitcher. The left-handed-hitting Vogelbach is far better against righties (117 wRC+) than lefties (46 wRC+). Tsutsugo also hits lefty, but his splits aren’t as extreme; he’s actually better against lefties (101 wRC+) than righties (91 wRC+).

"Between first and the DH, I think we're going to to see a good bit of Yoshi and Vogey in those two spots," Shelton said.

“Anytime you can get consistent at-bats, you hope that’s a chance for you to get in a rhythm, go through the ups and downs, ride the hot streaks,” Vogelbach said. “I’m in myself. I'm a confident player. I feel like you have to be a confident player in this league, or you just get eaten alive. I believe in myself. I believe in my work and I believe that I can hit.”

Vogelbach enters a clubhouse where he'll recognize a couple faces. In Milwaukee, Vogelbach worked with the Pirates’ new hitting coach Andy Haines in both 2020 and 2021. Additionally, Vogelbach's locker is next to Gamel, whom he played with in Seattle and Milwaukee. In Pittsburgh, the slugger will also have the chance to work with rising stars he’s watched from afar.

“Ke’Bryan [Hayes] and [Bryan] Reynolds and those guys are special to watch,” said Vogelbach, who has a locker right next to Reynolds as well. “I played with Gamel in Seattle, watched him play forever. It’s fun to watch. They play hard. It’s how I like to play; really competitive and aggressive. It’s fun to watch and I’m glad to be apart of it."

Hembree will join a relief corps in need of reinforcement. Last year, Pittsburgh’s bullpen had the eighth-worst ERA (4.55) and FIP (4.48) in the Majors. Among returning relievers, only David Bednar and Chris Stratton had an fWAR above 0.5. In Hembree, the Pirates have a veteran with experience in the late innings.

“[Pittsburgh] seemed like the right place for me,” Hembree said. “It was a lot of thoughts going back and forth with the club, but I felt as far as me right now, it was a good fit.”

Hembree had a track record of success in Boston; from 2016-19, Hembree posted a 3.60 ERA and 4.13 FIP across 212 2/3 innings with the Red Sox, helping win a championship in the process. Last year was not as kind to Hembree, who posted a 5.59 ERA and 4.34 FIP with the Mets and Reds. The numbers under the hood, however, indicate that better days might be ahead.

For one, Hembree had an xERA of 3.17 and xFIP of 3.84. The right-hander was also in the 94th percentile of xBA and 96th percentile of K%. Should Hembree’s fortunes turn in the coming months, the Pirates could flip him at the Trade Deadline for a prospect.

“Obviously, it can be frustrating,” Hembree said. “I felt like I was throwing the ball well all year. I felt like last year was one of my better seasons on the field. So, it was kind of just take the punches as they come. I had to have thick skin last year. In all, I felt even the good breaks, the tough breaks that I got helped me mature as a pitcher on the field.”