Winter Wonders: Dec. 8

Cannon falls short of home run record, but puts on MVP-caliber performance




PHOENIX--Phoenix first baseman Chip Cannon sets himself snug to the plate, his stance slightly open, seemingly vulnerable to a well-placed inside fastball.

Seemingly.

Cannon turned enough of those fastballs around this Arizona Fall League season to convince Desert Dogs manager Tony DeFrancesco (Athletics), along with opposing pitchers, of the inadvisability of that approach.

Cannon, 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, finished the AFL hitting .352/.474/.714 with 11 home runs in 105 at-bats. He ranked fourth in the league in hitting, led the league in home runs and RBIs (29) and threatened the league record of 14 homers set by Brandon Wood (Angels) last season.

“He's a big guy and you look at him, he has some torque in him,” DeFrancesco said.

“The one thing he's doing, he's really developing some nice bat speed. I think his selective hitting has helped his approach. He's been able to lay off some tough pitches, and right now when they are making a mistake, he is hitting it out of the ballpark. To do what he is doing in this league, he's proven a lot. He's the MVP of the league, no doubt.”

Cannon, who has continued to move up the Blue Jays' prospect list after being taken in the eighth round of the 2004 draft out of The Citadel, was averaging a home run every 7.2 at-bats until the last week of the season, when he failed to homer in his final seven games. Wood set his record last season by averaging a homer every 8.1 at-bats, the league record. Cannon completed the fall averaging a bomb every 9.5 at-bats.

Cannon's power is not unexpected. He had 10 in short-season Auburn in 2004 before breaking out with 32 at three levels in 2005 and 27 at Double-A New Hampshire this season, where he hit .248/.335/.476 with 69 RBIs. He credits his jump in average to recent set-up change, trying to get lower by bending his knees more in his stance.

“The last month and the half of the (regular) season, I tried to work on a few things and change my thinking a little bit, drop down a little bit,” said Cannon, 25. “I have a little more flexion in my knees. I'm such a tall guy, by being so vertical, I had a long way to go to the baseball. With more flexion in the knees, I am down more, a little shorter. I feel like now I have a little more of a chance to put the ball in play. I thought during the year I fouled a lot of pitches off that I could have put into play--hard.

“I'm not trying to be Jeff Bagwell low, but I'm just trying to have a little more flexion and being able to go straight to the ball. It took a little bit to get used to it, but now it is starting to feel pretty good.”

Phoenix coaches Jamie Dismuke and Steve Livesey credit Cannon's shorter, more compact swing and his ability to drive the outside pitch.

“He's nice and quiet at the plate. He has real good hand-eye coordination.  He has a real simple, basic approach,” said Dismuke, the Reds' hitting coach at Double-A Chattanooga the past three seasons. “He doesn't have a lot of head movement, and that helps him keep his head on the ball very well.”

As far as generating that power in a body that reminds some of Dave Kingman, “he's short and quick to the ball. He's in a great hitting position at contact. He's been locked in pretty much all fall. Once he learns to take his walks, we're going to see something more than we are seeing right now.”

Livesey, the Devil Rays' minor league hitting coordinator, added, “He's a good worker. He's patient. He has a good idea of what his pitch is that he looks for, and at least out here when he gets it he doesn't miss very often.

“To me, he's a handsy hitter. He gets inside the ball real well and has some whip. The thing that has impressed me, he's handled just about everything. He knows what he likes to hit, and he's patient enough to wait until he gets it.”

And in the AFL this year, no one got it like Cannon.

FALL GUYS

• Powered by Cannon and the best pitching staff in the league, Phoenix locked up its third straight AFL title, defeating Grand Canyon 6-2 in front of 1,181 fans at Scottsdale Stadium. The Desert Dogs managed just four hits, but got a solid start from righthander Virgil Vasquez (Tigers). The 24-year-old allowed a run on two hits, struck out four and did not issue a walk over five innings of work.

Vasquez got rocked in his first AFL start of the season when he took the mound battling flu-like symptoms, but finished the regular season by reeling off 24 consecutive scoreless innings. Then he threw four more scoreless frames in the title game before giving up a run. The Tigers added him to their 40-man roster when the AFL was over.

“I had fun out here,” said the righthander, who went 7-12, 3.73 in 174 innings at Double-A Erie in 2006. “We had a great team. I kept telling the guys before the game that I wish we could have this team during the season because we had so much fun together . . . If you have fun and stay loose, you're going to succeed as a team.”

• North Shore defeated Waikiki 5-1 to win the Hawaii Winter Baseball title, led primarily by lefthander Joe Thatcher (Brewers). Thatcher allowed just one hit over the final 41⁄3 innings in relief of Blake Eager (Mets). The 25-year-old lefty, who was signed out of the independent Frontier League in 2005, struck out three and didn't allow a walk to secure the championship. DH and Hawaii native Rodney Choy Foo (Indians) drove in the tying and go-ahead runs to lead the Honu. “I was throwing mostly all fastballs--I think I threw three or four curveballs and maybe one changeup,” said Thatcher, who played at Indiana State. “I was just being aggressive, going right at them. I didn't expect to go that long. I didn't go that long all year. Coaches had faith in me, kept running me out there. Drew Butera did a heck of a job behind the plate; the best catcher I've ever thrown to.”

Contributing: Stacy Kaneshiro, Bill Mitchell.