Ya know, it was pretty depressing news when the Bucs missed out on signing Miguel Sano in 2009 thanks to some head-butting between Rene Gayo and Sano's agent, Rob Plummer. But Gayo didn't drop his head - or the ball. Two weeks later he announced a batch of Latino kids whom he inked for the Bucs.
One of them was 16 year old second baseman Alen Hanson from La Romana of the Dominican Republic, scouted by Ellis Pena. He came at the modest price tag of $90-100K, about three million less than it took to lure Sano to Minnesota. And while Hanson may not be quite at Sano's level, he's one heck of a Plan B.
He spent time at the Dominican Academy (Alen started picking up English from the Academy, teammates, and three years of Rosetta Stone, and is a fair speaker now) and played his first ball in the DSL in 2010. The 17 year old switch hitter put up a slash of .324/.383/.447 playing second, third, and the outfield. The Bucs decided to bring him stateside, and he started 2011 in the GCL.
Hanson was steady enough there, too. His slash was .263/.352/.429, though he was sometimes fooled by pitches. He flashed his plus speed with 24 steals in 30 attempts (80%) and made the transition to shortstop. The teen got to visit State College briefly, getting in three games and collecting a couple of hits and a walk.
The Dominican was raw but toolsy, and though an unheralded signing, began popping up on some radar screens. After the season, Baseball America rated him the 14th best prospect in the GCL and the #27 prospect in the Pittsburgh organization, while Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Propectus ranked him #17 in Pirate system.
The Pirates moved both him and Gregory Polanco straight to Low Class A ball at West Virginia in the Sally League, skipping the State College level, in 2012. Neither disappointed; Hanson's line was .309/.381/.528 with a sudden burst of power. He hit 16 homers, 13 triples and 33 doubles, driving in 62 runs and scoring 99 from his leadoff spot.
Hanson had a 10% walk rate, although his 19% whiff rate was a little on the high side for a top-of-the-order guy, but totally acceptable if his power repeats and he drops toward the middle of the lineup. All in all, it was a sharp enough performance to earn him the #40 spot of BA's Mid-Season Top Fifty MLB Prospects and the 6th best prospect in the South Atlantic League.
It wasn't all peaches and cream. He padded his average early in the season and crashed a bit in the second half, especially in July, and was hampered in August by recurring hip flexor problems. Hanson stole 35 bases for the Power, but was caught 19 times, a 65% success rate that needs some work considering his wheels.
The Pirates hope he can hang at SS, a premium position that doesn't feature many bats like Hanson's. He booted 40 balls at WV and barely cleared .900 in fielding percentage in 103 games at the spot. There are several schools of thought on that.
One is that his arm, while above average, is better suited to second or the outfield. Another is that the game hasn't slowed down enough for him yet (Hanson was only 19 at WV) and he rushes too many plays, a problem that repetition and some coaching should solve. Another is that he just doesn't focus in the field, ala Ronnie Cedeno, and that can be overcome, even if RC never quite figured it out.
Be assured of this - the value he brings to SS is pretty high, and the Pirates will keep tossing him there until he either masters the position or goes down trying, in which case a switch to 2B/OF will be in line. They'll find a spot for him because of the way his bat plays.
The Pirates need a disruptive leadoff guy, and Hanson is the best fit for the job currently in the Bucco system. He covers the plate well, has a good enough eye, even with the occasional flail, to have a career 10% walk rate, and is a line drive, contact hitter that uses the whole field. Hanson does the little things, too - he steals, bunts, and isn't afraid to work a count. The only drawback is that he whiffs a bit much for leadoff.
Oh, and that surprising power surge. Hanson is a little bigger than when he was signed, now maybe 5' 11" and 160 pounds in a driving rainstorm, but if he keeps pounding the horsehide like Cutch, he may find himself a little lower in the lineup. We'll see how that plays out as he moves along in the system.
And he's moving like a bullet. MLB.com ranks him as the #47 prospect in baseball and Scouting Book at #95. Scouting Book ranks him as the #3 Pirate prospect and Baseball Prospectus has him at #5. When BA comes out with their team ratings in mid-January and prospect list in February, we'd expect to see his name prominently displayed again.
But it will take some time to get him to Pittsburgh; 2015 looks like his ETA if all goes well.