CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Headstones top a hillside in a cemetery above the left-field foul pole at Appalachian Power Park. The golden dome of the West Virginia state capitol hovers down the right-field line.
For now, this Class A stadium is home for Pirates prospect Alen Hanson. But what he has done here has convinced many he's destined for the best scenery a 19-year-old minor leaguer could imagine -- a major league park.
Already considered a prospect to watch, a standout season has helped catapult for the wiry shortstop toward the top tier of Pirates prospects. His development is welcomed in an organization that is somewhat thin at the position and in need of leadoff hitting.
In 109 games this year, Hanson has cranked 16 home runs after hitting four in 123 minor league games in two prior seasons combined. Entering Wednesday, he was hitting .308 this season with 29 doubles and 12 triples. He leads the South Atlantic League in extra-base hits and total bases and is second in hits.
The Pirates signed Dominican-born Hanson for $90,000 in 2009 when he was 16. That is slightly above the average signing bonus for Dominican prospects but far below the bonuses given to highly rated international prospects.
While he has exceeded expectations in the front office, Hanson said he anticipated taking a big step this season. He works with a personal trainer in the offseason in the Dominican Republic and told his hitting coach in West Virginia, Edgar Varela, that he was going to take a big step forward this season.
For Hanson, it's not if he makes it to the major leagues. It's when. That's one reason he invested in a set of gray braces on his top and bottom teeth this offseason. He also has studied English using Rosetta Stone for the past three years.
It's not just about playing the part. It's looking it and sounding it, too.
"Two, three years, more maybe, I'll be in the big leagues," Hanson said. "I need it for that. Plus my teammates, my manager, it's easier for me to listen."
He boasted to Varela that he could do interviews in English now -- a feat that would have been difficult at the start of the season and impossible one year ago.
"English, first time in America, it was bad," he said. "Last year, so-so. This year, I'm more ready."
That confidence could be the "deciding factor" in determining whether Hanson continues his upward ascent to the majors, West Virginia manager Rick Sofield said.
"This guy's got a belief system second to none, and he should -- God's blessed him," Sofield said. "He believes he's the best player on the field most days. The Derek Jeters of the world, the Josh Hamiltons, they know they're American League All-Stars. Hanson's got that as well, that attitude."
His power development has drawn comparisons within the organization to Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, two players who also possess a small frame but generate a lot of power with their bat speed.
"Andrew McCutchen has tremendous power, and it's bat speed," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "Bat speed comes from strength, but it's not bulk strength. It's wiry strength. [Hanson is] a great athlete. He's a quick-twitch athlete."
When Varela sees Hanson swing, he is reminded of Marte, whom he coached in 2009.
"He's not the biggest guy," Varela said, "but when you see him hit a ball, he'll hit a ball like a grown man does. And it comes from his bat speed."
But, Varela cautions, Hanson is still just a kid whose exuberance gets the best of him from time to time.
He has committed 37 errors in 91 games at shortstop. No other player in the South Atlantic League has more than 25 errors this year.
He has improved at shortstop from earlier in the season, when he was on pace to tie the South Atlantic League single-season error record: 56. But even then, he would have been in good company -- Jeter and Chipper Jones share that dubious distinction.
Varela said Hanson has a better, more consistent work ethic in pregame exercises, and it's starting to show on the field.
He also hopes to improve his consistency from both sides of the plate. His average as a right-handed hitter is almost .050 lower than his average as a left-handed hitter.
His defensive development is the biggest thing keeping him from a promotion to upper-tier Class A Bradenton, although he will likely start the 2013 season there. He probably will show up with the same unwavering belief that he has carried through his season in West Virginia.
"If you're doubtful, you're going to have a hard road here," Sofield said. "If you believe it regardless of the weekend or the week's series, that's part of it that gets people to the big leagues. They just believe more than everybody else. That's one of his advantages, for sure."pirates