Jonathan Cannon’s return sets up Georgia baseball for success

Georgia pitcher Jonathan Cannon (12) winds up to deliver a pitch during the Bulldogs' game against Ole Miss at the 2021 SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala., on Thursday, May 27, 2021. (Photo by Michael Wade/SEC)
Caption
Georgia pitcher Jonathan Cannon (12) winds up to deliver a pitch during the Bulldogs' game against Ole Miss at the 2021 SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala., on Thursday, May 27, 2021. (Photo by Michael Wade/SEC)

Credit: Michael Wade/SEC

Credit: Michael Wade/SEC

ATHENS – Georgia baseball coach Scott Stricklin was surrounded by 120 campers in the middle of Foley Field on Tuesday when his phone rang. But he knew this was a call he needed to take.

It was sophomore Jonathan Cannon calling, and Stricklin knew he’d have some news for him. What he heard from his flame-throwing starting pitcher, frankly, was unexpected.

“He said, ‘Coach, I just wanted to let you know I’m coming back,” Stricklin said. “I’m on the field running around with all these kids and that news certainly brightened my day.”

Cannon, a 6-foot-6, 216-pound right-hander, was projected by multiple outlets to go in the top three rounds of the MLB draft. But Cannon’s family, which had been approached by virtually every major-league team ahead of the draft, knew he had a lot of leverage. He’s a year away from graduating from UGA with a degree in business. So, the price tag they set for turning pro was high.

“This process really started last fall,” said Cannon, who played in the Cape Cod League this summer. “That’s really when you start meeting with teams. And even then, I said I was perfectly happy either way. Either I get picked early and start my pro career, or I come back to Georgia for another year. And I love Athens. I love the coaches, I love the team, I love playing at Foley and playing in the SEC. So, it was going to take a lot for me to leave.”

As it turned out, pro teams weren’t willing to meet Cannon’s demands. As a result, the Bulldogs have a centerpiece starter who throws in the high 90s to anchor their 2022 rotation.

Last season, Cannon posted a 4-2 mark and 3.98 ERA in 12 starts. He was rated as high as the No. 68 overall prospect for the draft, according to Baseball America.

Overall, Georgia came through the baseball draft in extremely good shape this year. That typically is not the case.

That’s always a quandary for college baseball programs. Coaches obviously want the best players possible competing for them. However, between the high school players they recruit and the upperclassmen they have developed, the better the players are, the more the professional ranks are looking to procure their services.

In this year’s case, Georgia lost only two would-be returning lettermen to pro baseball. Pitchers Ryan Webb (4th round, 125th overall, Cleveland Indians) and Ben Harris (8th round, 252nd, Los Angeles Dodgers) were chosen Monday. As for incoming signees, pitchers Dylan Ross and Coleman Willis were rated among the top 125 prospects but weren’t undrafted.

“It’s tough because you want the best players you can possibly have and you want them to get what they want, which is to play in the big leagues,” Stricklin said Wednesday. “So, yeah, we’ve got some players on our roster this year that we really didn’t expect. We thought the draft was going to swallow up some of them. Yet here we are with what we think is a really good roster and a lot of guys coming back.”

Suddenly, Georgia looks like one of the more veteran teams in the SEC for next season. The Bulldogs return their top hitters in seniors Connor Tate (.344 avg.-10 HRs-33 RBIs), shortstop Cole Tate (.319-2-20) and infielder Josh McAllister (.333-9-29). Georgia also is planning for the return of utility player Riley King (.261-6-34), who has the opportunity to have a sixth season of eligibility while preparing to enter medical school.

Also, pitchers Garrett Brown and Will Childers should be recovered from season-ending injuries last season, along with a bevy of young pitchers who were pressed into service last season as a result of staff injuries.

“It’s the deepest roster we’ve ever had, and it’s pretty close to the most talented roster we’ve ever had,” said Stricklin, whose last team finished 31-25 (13-17 SEC) and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. “It remains that you’ve got to stay healthy and guys need to play up to their potential, but we’re off to a great start.”

Said Cannon: “When I called Coach the other day to say I was coming back, we were both just as thrilled. We’re ready to go. The next thing you know, we’re returning practically our whole dang lineup. We have a lot of guys with a lot of experience and a lot of talented newcomers. I’m really excited.”