Monday, January 18, 2010

A long journey awaits late-round pick Hassan

A year ago at this time, not only was Alex Hassan gearing up for his spring semester at Duke, but he was gearing up both to pitch and to play the outfield for the Blue Devils and doing all the work that goes along with playing two ways.

With spring training less than six weeks away, though, Hassan is finishing up as single-minded an offseason as he's ever enjoyed. The Milton, Mass., native was drafted by the Red Sox as a pitcher last June but will be a full-time outfielder when he reports to Fort Myers next month.

"This is really the first time I've been able to concentrate solely on baseball and solely on one position," said Hassan in a conversation before the Boston baseball writers' dinner last week. "Before, it was like, 'Yeah, I have to lift weights, but I also have a bullpen today and I have to pitch a lot.' It was tough to balance those two things. This offseason, I got to really focus -- not only not having school but also having one clear position as what I'm going to do. That's really been beneficial for me this offseason."

Hassan doesn't have nearly the same name recognition as the top Red Sox prospects whose names are bandied about even by those who couldn't pick their faces out of a game program. (He especially doesn't have the same name recognition as another prospect who recently had to make the same type of decision.)

Hassan, a 20th-round pick last June, doesn't enjoy the same chances to make it, either: Mike Lowell came out of the 20th round of the 1995 draft, but only one other player drafted in the same round as Lowell that year ever made an appearance in a major-league game. The vast majority of 20th-round picks flame out before they ever reach the big leagues.

He faces particularly steep odds in a Red Sox system stacked with outfielders. Josh Reddick made his major-league debut last season, and Ryan Kalish isn't far behind him. Che-Hsuan Lin is participating in the Red Sox rookie development program this week in Boston. Ryan Westmoreland and Reymond Fuentes have a ways to go but are expected to be impact players at some point in the future.

That can be intimidating for a player who's not as highly touted as any of the above players. That, though, also can be exciting.

"A big thing with signing with the Red Sox is that they have an outstanding player-development program," he said. "You can just look at the major-league team right now and see how many home-grown guys they have and also see the guys in the organization now that are improving and moving up. I was picked by a team who has a lot of talent, but I was also picked by a team who is really good at developing talent."

He didn't exactly draw the spotlight to himself last week, standing alone against a wall as reporters flocked first to John Lackey and later to John Farrell and Terry Francona. He was barely noticed, let alone recognized -- but he also looked just as in awe of the faces in the same room as he would have been as a teenager at Boston College High School.

But the Red Sox didn't draft him for his ability to attract attention from the media -- a fickle group if there ever was one. The Red Sox drafted him because he hit 17 doubles and accumulated an on-base percentage of .419 during his junior season at Duke and because he struck out more than a batter an inning in his 16 appearances on the mound.

He both pitched and played in the outfield for Orleans of the Cape Cod Baseball League, too, compiling a 1.13 ERA in seven appearances and hitting .289 with a .344 on-base percentage in 114 at-bats.

Once he signed with the Red Sox, though, the Red Sox informed him they wanted him to focus full-time on hitting and playing the outfield. He hit over .328 and OBP'ed .375 in 135 plate appearances split between Single-A Lowell and Single-A Salem, and he then reported to Fort Myers with most of the rest of his draft class for the team's Fall Instructional League program.

All of that work has put himself into position to open his first full season at Single-A Greenville, the first rung on the ladder of full-season minor-league affilates.

"I'm really, really happy I signed when I did," he said. "Had I waited until the signing deadline, I probably wouldn't have gotten that experience, that first taste of professional baseball. Going into my first full professional season, it's good to have an idea of how pro ball works and what the schedule is like and what the grind of the season is like. ...

"I only played 35 or so games, but that will really pay off when I go into my first full season."

He took a couple of weeks off when he got home from Fort Myers -- college teams, after all, get started even earlier than professional teams do -- but threw himself right into his workouts after that. He started hitting again once the calendar turned to January and has been taking swings every day since then. Pat Sandora, the team's strength and conditioning coordinator for the minor leagues, has been his primary contact as he's gone through his offseason workouts.

He met with director of player development Mike Hazen during the Instructional League program in early October to lay out his goals both for the offseason and for the coming season -- goals that can be hard to define at such an early stage of his career. It would be nice if he could hit the ball over the fence a half-dozen times in the early going, but home-run hitters rarely become home-run hitters by focusing too much on that part of their game.

"There are things I'll definitely want to work on and want to do better," he said, "but a lot of this stuff is out of my control. The things I can control are playing hard and working hard. As long as I'm doing that and I continue to work as hard as I possibly can, those things hopefully will take care of themselves and I won't have to sit and worry about what my numbers look like. As long as I come in and play hard every day and work hard throughout the offseason and throughout the year, hopefully, as a result of the hard work, the numbers will get better -- the power, the stuff like that will get better just by working hard.

"That's not something I sit home and am going to worry about or try to force something to happen."

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