Ortiz-clone Vargas getting valuable experience
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kennys Vargas has heard the comparisons before, and he’s flattered.
"I hear a lot, ‘You like Big Papi,’" said Vargas, a first baseman in the Twins organization. "I think I try to do my job like Kennys Vargas. I like him. He’s my favorite player. I don’t try to look like him. I just try to do my job."
Big Papi, of course, is Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who once donned a Twins uniform before becoming a larger-than-life star in Boston. Vargas is a long way from being a star, let alone playing in the majors, but he’s definitely turning some heads this spring in Minnesota’s camp.
He did so, in fact, before even playing in a spring training game. His home runs seemed to travel farther than those of his Twins teammates. Once the games began last week, Vargas’ batting practice bombs drew plenty of oohs and aahs.
He exhibited that power last year with High-A Fort Myers, hitting 19 homers in 125 games with the Miracle. That’s in part why Vargas was added to the Twins’ 40-man roster in November and is getting some valuable experience in Minnesota’s big-league camp.
While in Fort Myers, Vargas is also learning a few tips from Ortiz, whose Red Sox share the same spring training city with the Twins. The two chatted before Minnesota’s game against the Red Sox last week and Vargas went to Ortiz’s house for dinner afterward.
"It’s a mansion. It’s really beautiful," Vargas said, his voice getting excited at the thought of Ortiz’s spring residence. "His chef can make good food."
The two first met back in 2011 when Vargas was in instructional league two years after signing with the Twins. The Puerto Rico native was a bit intimidated to talk to the Dominican-born Ortiz when he first saw him — who by then was a seven-time All-Star — but the veteran slugger quickly made the young Vargas feel at ease.
"I was nervous," Vargas laughed. "I can’t talk to him, like I was really quiet. He said, ‘Come on, talk to me. We are Latins. Don’t be scared.’ After that, really good."
Vargas still doesn’t crack the list of the Twins’ top-10 prospects in what has proven to be a deep minor-league system, but his power is certainly intriguing. He’s continuing to work on keeping his weight down — he checked into camp at 6-foot-5, 273 pounds — and his defense at first base remains a work in progress.
That’s one thing that Vargas talked about with Ortiz, who is primarily a designated hitter but has played 263 games at first base. Vargas has also received tutelage from former Twins manager Tom Kelly, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, and new first baseman Joe Mauer, who remembers seeing Vargas in extended spring training a few years back.
"I can tell he’s definitely a lot more polished than when I first met him," Mauer said. "You could tell what field he was on. He was laughing, smiling. He’s fun to be around."
Vargas’ locker is next to Mauer’s in the Hammond Stadium clubhouse, so Vargas affectionately calls the former MVP "roomie." As Mauer continues to learn his new position, and Vargas works on fine-tuning his defense there, they’ll spend plenty of time together this spring — at least while Vargas remains with the big league club before he heads down the street to the minor leagues ide.
After spending the 2013 season at High-A Fort Myers, Vargas hopes to begin 2014 at Double-A New Britain, one step closer to the majors. He doesn’t hope to take up residence in New Britain, Conn., for too long, however.
"Because it’s cold weather," Vargas said.
The 23-year-old was then reminded that Minneapolis is just as cold as New Britain, if not colder.
"Yeah, but in Minnesota it’s different because it’s big leagues. Yeah, roomie?" Vargas said to Mauer.
"Yeah, absolutely," Mauer replied.
Vargas has had plenty of chances already to make an impression on the Twins this spring. He’s appeared in five games before Thursday — often in relief of Mauer — and is 2-for-7 with a pair of RBI and four strikeouts. Those strikeouts were definitely an issue last year in Fort Myers as he fanned 105 times and drew 50 walks in his 520 plate appearances.
Still, his home run power could be the biggest reason Vargas moves up through the ranks. His power numbers took a jump last year from 11 home runs in 2012 to 19 in 2013. Vargas worked on getting stronger in his legs in the offseason, perhaps one reason for the bump in power.
"I don’t know the biggest difference I had more power the last year," Vargas said. "I don’t know why, because I don’t rest any. I play winter ball and then come here. I just rest like two weeks. I’m supposed to get tired but I feel great. . . . I just hit the ball and the ball fly much better than last year."
The bottom line, though, is that Vargas is still relatively raw, both at the plate and in the field. Those comparisons to Big Papi? They’re premature.
In the meantime, Vargas will continue to get tips from Ortiz and Molitor and Rod Carew and Mauer during his time in camp. Perhaps one day he and his spring roomie will be roomies at Target Field.
"It’s a great experience. It’s really important because of my career," Vargas said of being in big-league camp. "I want to do my best ever, try to make the team. Or if I don’t make the team, make a good team for I doing good in Double-A or something and maybe I go up soon. . . .
"I hope to play in the big leagues. It’s my dream."
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