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(Limited) Opportunity Knocks for Alen Hanson

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Pittsburgh's Alen Hanson
Pittsburgh's Alen Hanson
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Alen Hanson will begin spring training as the odds-on-favorite to become Pittsburgh's Opening-Day second baseman. It is an opportunity Hanson must seize, and seize quickly, for even should he win the job with solid defense and a scorching spring at the plate, the chances that he would remain the everyday second baseman by May 1 still appear fairly low.

With incumbent Neil Walker having been shipped to the Mets in an offseason trade for LHP Jon Niese, the Pirates are expected to hand the everyday 2B job to utilityman Josh Harrison, except that Pittsburgh's regular third baseman, Jung-ho Kang, still is recovering from a knee injury he suffered in September thanks to Chris Coghlan's violent take-out slide, so Harrison, at least in the short term, will be needed at the hot corner, opening the door for Hanson at 2B.

Hanson's opportunity, therefore, could be limited, which gives the entire situation an air of uncertainty and, for fantasy purposes, makes it difficult to forecast his 2016 value. Indeed, with so many variables, the range of plausible outcomes might be wider for Hanson than it is for any of his teammates.

In 2012, Hanson burst onto the prospect scene as a nineteen-year-old with a scintillating full-season debut for the West Virginia Power of the Low-A South Atlantic League. That year, Hanson slashed .309/.381/.528 and showed a tantalizing combination of speed and power, with 35 steals, 13 triples, 99 runs scored, and 16 home runs in only 124 games. If you follow minor-league baseball (and if not, why deny yourself one of life's great joys?), then you know how rare it is to find a teenager posting such numbers in full-season ball.

Alas, since 2012 Hanson has struggled to approach, let alone to duplicate, his impressive debut. While teammate and friend Gregory Polanco, who still calls Hanson after every game, has entrenched himself as the Pirates' everyday rightfielder, Hanson has spent the last two-plus seasons toiling in the upper minors. His exciting talent still flashes, but Hanson's overall performance has been uneven and, on occasion, erratic. At Indianapolis in 2015 he tied for the International League lead with 35 steals, finished second with 12 triples, and tied for seventh with 66 runs scored. On the other hand, since reaching Double-A Altoona in 2013 he has posted OBPs of .299, .326, and .313, and he twice has been benched for lack of hustle.

This confluence of circumstances--the Walker trade, the Kang injury, Hanson's exciting skills and recent frustrations--will make Pittsburgh's young second baseman a must-watch prospect this spring.

So what should fantasy owners expect as draft season approaches?

On one hand, Hanson and the Pirates (not to mention Hanson's dynasty-league owners) have good reason to feel excitement and optimism. In a perfect world, Polanco, like Starling Marte, would develop more power and hit closer to the middle of the order, clearing the way for Hanson in the leadoff spot. With a reputation as a slick fielder at second base, Hanson should make all of the routine defensive plays and a few spectacular ones, which will endear him to manager Clint Hurdle, an otherwise genial man who has little patience for defensive lapses (see: Alvarez, Pedro). Even when Kang returns, Hanson's only real obstacle for playing time at 2B will be Josh Harrison, who might be best suited for the super-utility role he played during his breakout season of 2014. If, therefore, Hanson claims both the everyday 2B job and the leadoff spot for a team coming off a 98-win season--and this is a gargantuan "if"--his offensive skills give him the chance to post 30+ steals and double-digit homers, which would make him a top-ten fantasy player at his position.

As plausible as this happy scenario sounds, a more unsettling possibility looms. Hanson's claim to the everyday 2B job in 2016 will require a fast start and a strong April. The Pirates' bats, however, tend to heat up only when the weather does. Andrew McCutchen could endure another .194 April batting average, but Hanson cannot. The Pirates' April schedule is not daunting, but it does include ten games with against the Cardinals, Tigers, and Diamondbacks, all of whom appear to boast strong starting rotations. "OK, kid," Clint Hurdle might say to Hanson, "this week we've got Wainwright, Wacha, and Martinez, and it's 40 degrees. Go get ‘em."

Worse yet, if he struggles in April, Hanson might not receive another opportunity until 2017 at the earliest. Harrison's presence and Kang's returning health will give the contending Pirates veteran alternatives, and Hanson still has a minor-league option. While somewhat unfair, this sort of one-look-and-you're-done-for-a-while "opportunity" happens to a number of players. The best and most recent example of player similar to Hanson who received a brief callup, struggled, and has not been heard from since might be Arismendy Alcantara of the Cubs. As a 22-year-old second baseman with Triple-A Iowa in 2014, Alcantara hit .307 with 25 doubles, 11 triples, 10 homers, and 21 steals in only 89 games, which earned him a promotion to Chicago, where he scuffled and flailed his way to a .205 average with 93 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 70 games. He opened 2015 with the Cubs but soon was demoted to Iowa, where he bottomed-out with a dreadful .231/.285/.399 slash line in 120 games and now no longer appears to be in the long-term plans for the young, talented, and contending Cubs. Hanson, a year younger than Alcantara, must fight to avoid a similar fate.

So where does this leave fantasy owners? Consider Hanson a late-round lottery ticket who could pay immediate dividends. He's lost his "helium" as a prospect and hasn't generated much buzz in re-draft circles, so he'll come cheap, which is unusual for a talented offensive player at a weak position whose plausible short-term ceiling is rather high.

The downside with Hanson includes a wasted draft pick on a player whose first big-league opportunity comes with so many variables and obstacles that the Alcantara scenario might be the most plausible one of all.

I will be rooting for Hanson to succeed in 2016 and to run away with Pittsburgh's 2B job, but I will not be counting on it.