Evaluating talent on the international market can be even more difficult than it is on the domestic side. Often, prospect writers become enamored with bonus babies and neglect many of the talented players who sign for smaller bonus figures. Every year, a few of these under-the-radar prospects raise their profiles considerably. This season, the Pittsburgh Pirates system saw two Dominican players burst onto the prospect scene: Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco.
After a decent showing (statistically speaking) in the Gulf Coast League, Hanson advanced to full-season ball in 2012. He entered the season as the Pirates’ no. 17 prospect, according to Kevin Goldstein, described as a “young infielder [with] speed and an idea at the plate.” Now, one could make an argument that Hanson is the Pirates’ top position prospect.
The 19-year-old raised some eyebrows when he crushed opposing pitching in April (.410/.441/.695). While he couldn’t keep up that kind of pace, his offensive tools were beginning to materialize. A switch hitter, Hanson is short to the ball from both sides and has above-average power potential. He has the bat speed to be a plus-plus hitter, and the overall offensive package might be good enough to profile at any position on the field. This is where it gets scary: he’s a shortstop.
Hanson is a natural athlete and has all the tools of someone who can stick at the game’s most demanding defensive position. No one expects him to be Brendan Ryan, but his above-average arm and excellent mix of range and quickness give him a chance to be an average defender at short. He needs to log innings at the position and make his defensive development a priority, but the tools are all there. Speed is also a big part of Hanson’s game; he has the makings of an above-average runner, but he needs to refine his baserunning skills to make the most of his physical gifts.
Hanson has a chance to have at least average tools across the board, and with experience and a few refinements, he could become a something special. “Alen Hanson was born to lead off,” said Rick Sofield, who managed him at Low-A West Virginia this season. Sofield described Hanson as an unflappable kid who stays focused and believes in his baseball abilities. In researching Hanson, I couldn’t help but think of Jurickson Profar, who also boasts average-to-plus tools across the board and receives good grades for his makeup. Hanson isn’t quite the prospect that Profar is or was at the same age, but even a poor man’s Profar can be impressive.
Gregory Polanco is another up-the-middle-player who shined in West Virginia this season. Hanson had his fans entering 2012, but Gregory Polanco was a commodity unknown to most prognosticators. Now, the center fielder is also among the most promising position players in Pittsburgh’s system.
Polanco’s .325/.388/.522 line from this season is impressive, and he also managed to swipe 40 bags in 55 attempts. His speed is different than Hanson’s, as he takes a little bit longer to get moving out of the box, but it’s still a weapon that should play when it’s refined and he’s finished developing. Defensively, Polanco utilizes his foot speed and long legs to chew up plenty of ground, and he receives excellent marks for his instincts in center field. The 21-year-old also has a plus arm and can hold runners efficiently.
Offensively, Polanco is expected to be more of a power threat than a hitter for average. The key to unlocking his power potential, and thus to approaching his ceiling, is going to be his hit tool. He’s a lanky kid, and as a result, his swing can get long at times. Even though the bat speed is there, the swing has spawned some doubters. It’s not big and loopy, but “his arms are a little longer, so he’s always going to have to fight himself staying inside the ball,” according to one scout. However, he has shown some ability to shorten it and make consistent contact. If it comes together, Polanco’s skillset could be scary: the power is silly at five o’clock, and it’s already beginning to play in games. And there’s plenty more where that came from: as a scout added, “He’s gotten stronger, but he has by no means gotten into his man strength yet.”
Given his body type (listed at 6’4”, 170 lbs.), many evaluators question Polanco’s ability to stick in center, worrying that he’ll add weight until he’s forced to move off the position. However, his genetics suggest that this won’t be a problem. His father is approaching 60 and still looks like he could play, and Polanco could well mature into a chiseled athlete capable of patrolling center for a decade.
The best-case scenario is that Polanco turns into a defensive monster at an up-the-middle position and provides excellent power numbers. Since he became much better known this year, there seems to be some question as to how he’s going to handle the knowledge that he’s an attractive commodity. His work ethic this winter and next season will tell us a lot about his makeup.
In Hanson and Polanco, the Pirates have a pair of talented, high-ceiling prospects any organization would prize. Both players will see action in the Dominican Winter League and should receive invitations to big-league camp next spring. After that, High-A Bradenton will likely be the next stop for both. There, they’ll have the chance to prove themselves against better competition and continue climbing the ladder. A million things can go wrong between Low-A and the majors, but the ceilings of Hanson and Polanco give Bucs fans and officials something to dream on.