BRADENTON, Fla. – On the first day of Pirates full squad workouts, Alen Hanson was back at a familiar position. He was taking ground balls at shortstop during batting practice, rather than shagging fly balls in the outfield like other players.
Hanson came up through the lower levels as a shortstop, but moved to second base full-time during the 2015 season. He got some work at other positions, and added third base and outfield work in 2016. But he has played just one game at shortstop since the 2014 season, and none in 2016, even though he has still taken occasional grounders at the position.
There isn’t a plan for Hanson to become a shortstop again, at least not full-time. When he was playing the position, he showed the skills needed to stick, with the range to cover grounders in the hole, and enough arm strength to make the throw to first. His issues came with concentration, and were very frustrating to watch. He’d make a highlight reel play, but would boot the very next routine grounder hit to him, or make a low effort throw to first base that would go wide or in the dirt.
Since the move to second base, Hanson’s defense has been better, to the point where he has been named the best defensive second baseman by International League coaches and managers the last two years, per Baseball America. The problem the last two years is that his offense has been inconsistent. He often looks like he is pushing too hard to impress and make the jump to the majors. This was shown last year after his brief MLB debut. He was called up for a weekend in May, and upon returning to Indianapolis, he looked like he was swinging for the fences with every pitch, leading to a lot of strikeouts and pop-ups, and taking him away from the game and approach of hitting to the gaps and utilizing his speed that works so well for him.
Now, Hanson finds himself in a unique situation. He’s getting his first real shot at the big leagues in 2017, with an inside track to make the bench. However, he’s out of options, which means this will also be his last chance with the Pirates. He’s got enough tools and speed that it’s almost certain another team would take a flier on him if he was put through waivers, which is what would happen if he didn’t make the team and was designated for assignment.
That’s where the old position comes in. For Hanson to make the team, he needs to show as much value as he can at as many positions as he can. He can play second, third, and the corner outfield positions. But if you add shortstop back into that mix, it makes him a lot more valuable.
“It’s going to be an interesting spring for Alen,” Clint Hurdle said. “We’ve had Alen forever. Alen has been able to come all the way from the bottom to the top. We had him up last year. We’re going to move him around. We’re going to even ask what might be there at shortstop. There’s an opportunity for him to be the super U that J-Hay was in 2014. There are some things he can do to change the course of a game which are dynamic. The consistency with which he can play coming off the bench. He’s got to go out and play with an energy that’s unique, to make the speed work, to make the defensive versatility a plus.”
Of course, the thing about defensive versatility is that even if you have it, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Hurdle pointed this out in the best way possible.
“I could play a bunch of position, but nobody said I was gifted defensively,” Hurdle joked. “They’d just talk about my versatility. It wasn’t really good versatility, but it was versatility.”
The thing about Hanson is that he provides value. He might be the fastest guy and the best base stealing option off the bench for the Pirates this year. He’s strong defensively at second base, and can handle his own at third and the outfield spots, although you can tell he’s still new in the outfield. And he has the skills to play shortstop, even if it’s only a Sean Rodriguez type role where he’s only used on occasion. Those skills improve if he can find a way to fix his inconsistencies at the position, although the chances of that happening have long been abandoned.
Hanson spent the offseason working on things necessary for his upcoming role off the bench. He’s been focusing on areas like bunting, base running, and feeling comfortable coming into a game cold off the bench. He also spent time working on agility, speed, and footwork.
“Just making sure that I focus on the little things, and not just focus on the little things, but dominate the little things,” Hanson said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “I know that’s not only what they’re looking for, but that’s what is going to help my game the best. But truthfully, another area I’ve been focusing on is becoming a better ballplayer coming off the bench. Being able to offer that to my team, and being able to be the greatest asset that I could be whenever they need me.”
Hanson will almost certainly make the team this year. I don’t think the Pirates will risk losing him without giving him one real shot in the majors. I don’t know if he’ll get over his consistency issues right away with the bat. I do know that he has enough speed and defense to provide value off the bench. If he can occasionally play shortstop, that would make him more valuable, as it would allow the Pirates an extra spot without needing a true backup shortstop. These skills will allow him to stick in the majors long enough to try and improve on his consistency issues in other areas.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.