Revamped approach pays off for Hannahan

Revamped approach pays off for Hannahan

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It wasn't much different from the conclusion of any season. Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler struck out to end the game and the Mariners wrapped up 2009 with a victory.

Jack Hannahan, who was playing first base for Seattle on that early October afternoon, jogged off the field and headed into another offseason. What he did not know was that it would be more than a year until he received the opportunity to play in another big league game.

The Indians are giving him the chance. In camp as a non-roster invitee, Hannahan was informed on Friday in a meeting with manager Manny Acta that he will be Cleveland's starting third baseman on Opening Day.

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"It's just a real sense of relief," Hannahan said. "You can relax."

Circumstances afforded Hannahan an opportunity -- third-base candidate Jason Donald has been sidelined with a left hand injury for most of March -- but it was his steady glove and improved approach at the plate that did the convincing.

"Jack had a great camp," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "He did a very good job of seizing an opportunity that was in front of him."

When the Indians signed Hannahan to a Minor League contract in December, it seemed highly unlikely that he would crack the starting lineup. At best, Hannahan was thought to be a utility option off the bench, considering his above-average defensive ability all around the infield.

Donald was home in California working on transitioning to third base. Jayson Nix headed to Puerto Rico to get reps in at the hot corner in winter ball. Luis Valbuena was also considered an option down the third-base line. Then there was the presence of highly touted prospect Lonnie Chisenhall.

One by one, the chips fell Hannahan's way.

Donald was struck on the left hand by a pitch from White Sox righty Gavin Floyd on March 5. It became clear early in camp that Nix was being considered more for second base than third. Valbuena has struggled mightily at the plate. Chisenhall was sent back to Minor League camp for more development.

Along the way, Hannahan flashed the leather in the field and slapped pitches around the diamond at the plate.

"He came and did what was advertised of him," Acta said. "He played terrific defense and he's had a very good camp offensively."

Acta's message to Hannahan in their Friday meeting was simple: "Just be the good defensive player you are and have quality at-bats."

It might sound simple, but it is what Hannahan hoped to hear.

In the past, Hannahan got caught up in the expectation that many evaluators want in a third baseman. It is traditionally a spot where the player can serve as a slugger in the lineup. Over the past few years, Hannahan altered his swing and became pull happy, trying to generate more power.

The 31-year-old Hannahan worked hard to correct that issue over the winter and continued the process with Indians hitting coach Jon Nunnally this spring. The results so far have been solid. Through 19 Cactus League games entering Sunday, Hannahan hit .375 with five doubles, seven walks and a .464 on-base percentage.

"Coming up," Hannahan said, "I heard a lot about how third basemen need to be power hitters and hit balls out of the ballpark. It kind of got to a point where I made a swing change and it was kind of two steps backwards instead of two steps forward.

"I struggled a little bit, for at least a year and a half, and now I'm trying to really get back to the type of hitter that I am. It's just shortening my swing down, driving the ball the other way."

When they signed Hannahan, the Indians were most intrigued by his glove.

With a pitching staff that relies heavily on creating ground balls, the Indians must have a sound defender at third base. Hannahan, who can play all four infield positions, has proven throughout his career that he is an above-average third baseman. He showed that again this spring.

"He's been everything we expected defensively," Antonetti said. "It reinforced our thoughts on him coming in."

And it persuaded the Tribe to include Hannahan on the Opening Day roster.

The decision comes after Hannahan split the 2010 season between Triple-A Tacoma (Seattle) and Triple-A Pawtucket (Boston). Hannahan hit a combined .237 at both stops, but never sniffed the Majors.

Hannahan only has one full big league season to his credit with Oakland. That year, 2008, he hit just .218. Overall, the third baseman has posted a .224 career average in the big leagues compared to a .268 average in the Minors.

After working with Nunnally this spring, and producing the results he has for the Indians, Hannahan is feeling more confident about his swing than he has in a long time.

"It's nice when you work hard and it finally pays off," he said.

Especially when the bounty is a spot in the Opening Day lineup.

"He really did his part to earn that opportunity," Antonetti said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.