Minnesota's Own Nate Hanson
by, 04-21-2014 at 11:54 PM (222 Views)
Last season, Twins fans (and minor league geeks like me) hung on Miguel Sano's and Byron Buxton's every at-bat. In fact, the night I covered (and live-tweeted) Sano's New Britain Rock Cats' debut, I gained something like 200 Twitter followers. Sure, Sano is exciting -- a kid with game-changing power and an electric personality. But behind every Sano or Buxton are hundreds of players that never get the recognition they deserve.
Since I've been following the New Britain Rock Cats, my two favorite players to watch have been James Beresford and Nate Hanson. Nope, not Sano, not Eddie Rosario, not Josmil Pinto. Beresford, a superb defender, made the move midway last season to AAA, and hasn't looked back. In fact, he's been one of the Rochester Wings' best hitters in 2014. Hanson, however, was again assigned to New Britain to begin 2014. This -- along with A.J. Achter's assignment to New Britain (he since moved up to AAA) -- really surprised me, for several reasons.
Hanson, 27, is experiencing his third April in New Britain (he played the final 60 games of 2011 for the Rock Cats, and had a very brief 20-game stint in Rochester in 2013 -- otherwise it's all been Hard Hittin' New Britain since 2012). He has been the definition of a utility player, a go-to guy, a gamer, and a teammate who doesn't whine. You can pick your sports cliches, but Hanson (and Berseford, too) is an example that sometimes cliches are used for a reason. One of Hanson's best attributes is his attitude. When I asked about starting 2014 in New Britain, again, instead of Rochester, Hanson said that it was a result of the talent in the system, "and it was just how the rosters played out. I saw it as an opportunity to play every day and get my at-bats while being one of the leaders on the team." To be sure, at-bats, regardless of the level of competition, are the most important thing: no one ever gets bumped up a level because they were good in a pinch-hit situation.
Although a natural third baseman, Hanson has seen time at first base, left field, DH, and most recently, second base. He's in the lineup every night. He does his job -- and is capable of fielding any of those positions. Regarding his super-utility status, Hanson said that "versatility is my strongest asset, and I pride myself on being a very good defender regardless of the position." As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that Hanson reminds me a bit of Michael Cuddyer, with less power. For as much as some people complained at the prospect of Cuddyer playing second base or first base, or even pitching an inning, keep in mind, the Twins needed someone to occupy those positions, and Cuddy did it, even when it took him out of his comfort zone. There's huge value to an organization in a guy who can cover several positions in a pinch and not embarrass with the bat. There's huge value to an organization when it can get through a couple games using versatile players, without having to make a roster move.
Hanson, though, is no slouch offensively. He's off to a hot start this year. In fact, he was 2-for-6 in this evening's game with a home run and a walk. In 15 games this season, Hanson has a .311 average with the homer, 5 doubles and 9 RBIs. Hanson said that he's "typically a slow starter, but feels good at the plate thus far." He also has the benefit of having "faced some familiar pitchers, so I have an idea of what they're trying to do on the mound."
So after all is said and done, what is Hanson's path to the Twins? I'm not exactly sure. One the one hand, the Twins hope that Sano quickly recovers from Tommy John surgery and is able to travel through AA, AAA an become the Twins' starting third baseman at some point in 2015. So it seems like Hanson may be blocked at third base in the long run. On the other hand, though, there are so many paths for a guy that can play 4 defensive positions. First things first, though: Hanson deserves an extended opportunity to play every day in Rochester. I hope it's sooner than later, but it is warranted.
If Hanson hits AAA pitching, I think he's a great candidate for a Twins' bench role. As the MLB season drags on, injuries always mount for the big club. So often, the Twins' bench options have either been defensive specialists with no bat, or guys that can hit but cannot field (Jim Thome 2011 comes to mind -- loved the guy, but it was always a tough situation when he'd come off the bench in a big situation, draw a walk, then have to be taken out for a pinch runner because he couldn't run or field). A player like Hanson (or even Beresford) bridges the gap between a typical "defensive specialist" and a limited "bench bat." Whatever his future, though, Nate Hanson will continue to conduct himself as a professional. In fact, the Rock Cats awarded him their annual "10th Player Award" at the end of last season. Minnesotans should be proud to say that Nate Hanson is "one of their own."