Monday, February 16, 2009

Craig Hansen - A Sleeper?

Craig Hansen is the big - 6'6", 230 lb - flamethrower that the Bucs got from the Red Sox as part of the Jay Bay deal. Of the four guys Pittsburgh were sent in return, he's probably struggled the most, though that LaRoche kid is givng him a good run for the money.

The 25-year old native of Glen Cove, NY, used to hit the upper 90s with his heater, but with the Pirates, his velocity has dropped to 92 MPH, and he hasn't found a plate big enough to split yet.

It wasn't always that way. After a so-so frosh year at St. John's in the Big East, he became the closer as a sophomore, striking out 59 in 40-1/3 frames and saving ten games. Hansen had his coming out party during his junior season with the Red Storm.

He put together a 3-2 record with 14 saves, punching out 85 hitters in 64 innings with a 1.68 ERA, and was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America. It impressed the nearby Boston suits.

They took him with the 26th pick of the first round of the 2005 draft, and signed him to a four-year deal valued at $4M. The Red Sox also added him to the 40-man roster. Nice vote of confidence, hey?

The Red Sox assigned Hansen to the GCL briefly before sending him to the AA Portland Sea Dogs. He joined Boston for a September cup of coffee, making his debut in the show on September 19 against the Devil Rays. Hansen struck out the first man he faced, pitching a perfect inning with two strikeouts.

He started 2006 at Portland, and after 5 appearances was shipped to AAA Pawtucket. Hansen worked 36 innings there, K'ing 26 and walking - red flag here - 19. But they called him up to Beantown anyway, and he took his lumps.

Hansen got into 38 games, and had a 6.63 ERA as a middle reliever. He struck out 30 in 38 innings and walked 15. The big guy got to start 2007 back in AAA.

He spent the year there, and his control, well, it was out of control. In 51-1/3 innings, he walked 32 and struck out 48. The Red Sox shipped him to Mesa after the season to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where he threw very little, but did OK. In five innings, he whiffed 8 and issued just one free pass.

Hansen complained of fatigue - and his roomies beefed about his snoring - and after some tests, they found out he had sleep apnea. That was in 2006, but he soldiered through it for awhile. But after the 2007 season, he finally had surgery to correct it.

We'd like to report that the now bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Hansen immediately made a turnaround. But alas, it was more of the same ol', same ol' in 2008. He started out at Pawtucket again, and it looked promising. In 16-2/3 innings, he sent 17 batters back to the dugout empty-handed and walked five.

But the Red Sox couldn't let well enough be, and called him back up. In 32 innings of work, he gave up 23 free passes and K'ed 25. Then it was off to Pittsburgh. He walked 20! in 16 innings and only punched out seven guys.

On August 27th, Hansen was optioned to AAA Indy after he allowed four earned runs without recording an out against the Cubs the night before. Hansen was recalled on September 2nd. He had a whole two innings with the Indians to get his act back together.

So what do the Bucs have, besides a guy with a ton of potential but who's been slowly circling the drain for the past three years? Here's what Sox Prospects said about him last season:
"Hansen's fastball has historically topped out in the high 90s, and he consistently hit the mid-90s. In 2008, he's been sitting more around 92 mph. He also possesses an excellent high-80s slider, which has been somewhat of a mystery -- sometimes its absolutely dominant and other times it just isn't there."

"A fierce competitor who has struggled with adversity early in his professional career. Seems to have the tools to be a successful major league closer, just needs to work on his confidence and composure on the mound. Struggles with getting behind early in counts. When he gets first pitch strikes, he can be dominant. All in all, if Hansen can get his slider going on a regular basis, he is an MLB-caliber reliever."
Well, he best do it now.

Hansen is the textbook example of a guy that the Red Sox - and the Pirates, for that matter - wouldn't keep on the farm long enough to learn his craft. Everybody loves that power arm. And he's out of options, even before he hit his arbitration years.

We're not sure, given his track record, why Pittsburgh didn't start him out at Indy instead of throwing him right into the fire. Maybe the suits were hoping he'd show the fans that they knew what they were doing when they swung the Bay deal; maybe they just were enamored of his rifle. Could be with no options, they figured "what the heck," too.

At any rate, it's time for Craig Hansen to live up to the promise this spring. Joe Kerrigan has his work cut out for him. And we hope he's up to the task. We'd hate to see that 97 MPH heater of old painting the corner while he's in someone else's uniform.

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