Reds' Francisco makes push for third base

Former Cuban national team first baseman and Atlanta Braves prospect Barbaro Canizares seems to have found his power stroke this winter as he is leading the Mexican Pacific League with 15 home runs and 37 RBIs and a .319 average through 38 games.

Canizares, who in 2004 was kicked off the Cuban team for trying to defect, signed with the Braves in 2006 as a free agent. Unlike former Cuban national team teammate Kendrys Morales, who found success in the majors with the Angels, Canizares has played just five games at the major league level.

Now a 32-year-old minor league veteran, Canizares -- the International League batting champion in 2010 -- spent last summer with Oaxaca in the Mexican summer league after the Braves released him on April 3. The right-handed hitting Cuban, however, is looking for a shot at a spring training invitation, perhaps with an American League team looking for some punch off the bench as his defense has been his weakness, according to several scouts.

Playing for the defending champion Ciudad Obregón Yaquis, Canizares has teamed up with Ryan Spilborghs, Doug Clark and Alfredo Amezaga to lead the Yaquis to the top of the standings in the early stages of the regular season’s second half after finishing in third place behind Mexicali and Culiacan in the first half.

Williams undefeated in Venezuela

Los Angeles Angels pitcher Jerome Williams is making a strong case for a permanent spot in the 2012 rotation. Pitching for the Magallanes Navegantes, Williams is 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA through six starts with 26 strikeouts and 12 walks while holding opponents to a .219 average.

After bouncing around the National League with San Francisco, Chicago and Washington between 2003 and 2007, Williams hooked up with the Angels last June and went 7-2 at Triple-A Salt Lake before being inserted into the Angels’ rotation, where he made six starts and finished with a respectable 4-0 mark and 3.86 ERA.

The Angels kept Williams on their 40-man roster. Given the possible departure of free agent Joel Pineiro, Williams is poised to be on their Opening Day roster.

Francisco proving he can play

With doubts about the health of Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen still lurking, up-and-comer Juan Francisco is jockeying to become the heir to the hot corner in Cincinnati with strong power numbers while playing for the Licey Tigres in the Dominican winter league.

Through 28 games, the 24-year-old Francisco is currently riding an 11-game hitting streak which has upped his average to .315 with three homers, 14 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .387. His last home run allowed him to pass Dominican legend Felipe Alou for 15th place in the all-time career home runs list in the Dominican league.

Rolen was shelved last September and underwent shoulder surgery. Although recent reports place him on course to come back for spring training, the left-handed hitting Francisco could be an inexpensive option for the Reds, who have plenty of questions with their pitching going into the height of the free-agent market.

Padilla eyes a .400 season

Jorge Padilla, who is fighting his way back to the majors after his ill-fated tenure with the Washington Nationals in 2009, is threatening to become the first player to hit over .400 in Puerto Rico since Edgar Martinez batted .423 in 1991-92 for the now-defunct San Juan Metros.

Padilla, an outfielder with the Caguas Criollos, is hitting .475 with an OPS of 1.296. The Criollos, who saw a five-game winning streak snapped by the Ponce Lions on Thanksgiving, have a one-game lead over Ponce in the four-team league.

Padilla, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1998 and has since floated through the Mets, Royals, Blue Jays, Nationals and Marlins organizations, was granted free agency by the Marlins on Nov. 1.

Padilla, now 32, last saw major league action with the Nationals in 2009 when he appeared in 29 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and compiled a .120 average, going 3-for-25.