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MLB: Twins tell rookie Vargas a little green in diet will go a long way

CHICAGO — Adults tell you to eat your vegetables if you want to grow up big and strong.

Kennys Vargas never bought into that logic.

“I don’t like vegetables,” the towering Twins rookie slugger says. “The only vegetable I eat is broccoli.”

Ah, so at least he likes broccoli then?

He shakes his head.

“I don’t like broccoli,” he says.

He eats broccoli — up to 10 spears at a time, four times a week — because it’s on his Twins-provided list of approved foods.

He devours grilled chicken and steak, before and after games, because they are on his good list as well.

“My body needs that for recovery,” he says.

What foods has Vargas had to give up in order to keep his weight in the target range of 270 to 275 pounds?

Bread and rice.

Lactose intolerant since boyhood, he doesn’t eat yogurt or drink milk. Nor, it turns out, does he mix in many salads.

“I don’t like salad,” he says. “I eat just meat.”

And broccoli. Lots and lots of broccoli.

If you want to know how the 24-year-old first baseman from Puerto Rico made it to this point, hitting .357 after his first weekend in the major leagues and preparing for his home debut Tuesday night against the San Diego Padres, consider his diet and conditioning.

Those might be the two areas where the 6-foot-5 Vargas has made the most improvement.

“He’s a big man and he’s always going to tip the scales pretty good because he’s a big man,” says Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony. “He’s a guy that can stay at 270-275 and be in decent shape.”

Signed as an undrafted free agent in February 2009, nearly a full year after he graduated high school, Vargas struggled mightily with his weight during his first few professional seasons.

In August 2011, while playing at rookie-level Elizabethton, he tested positive for a banned diuretic and was hit with a 50-game drug suspension, which carried over into the next season.

Embarrassed and scared, Vargas vowed to overhaul his diet and make a full commitment to his conditioning.

He began to shed weight the right way in 2012 while playing in the Class A Midwest League for Beloit. By 2013, he was fit enough to enjoy a breakthrough season with Class A Fort Myers, crushing 19 home runs, driving in 93 and earning a spot on the Twins’ 40-man roster last November.

During early work before batting practice, Vargas makes a daily habit of running sprints, jogging along the warning track and doing flexibility drills with a resistance bands and a weighted ball.

“I do it every day because I want to keep my weight low,” Vargas says. “I’m at 275 now. I want to go down to 270. Maybe next week.”

The staff at Double-A New Britain, starting with manager Jeff Smith, has stayed on Vargas this season about keeping his weight under control. He appreciates their concern and vows to stay in proper shape so his massive talent can flow.

Ask Vargas if he can feel a difference when he plays at a higher weight, he shakes his head.

“No, I don’t feel the difference,” he says. “I feel the difference when I go lower. I can’t see it but the coaches can see. My moves start getting slow. The bat’s not too fast.”

Considering Vargas hit 17 home runs in 356 at-bats for the Rock Cats this season, posting a combined on-base/slugging percentage of .832, maintaining bat speed obviously hasn’t been a problem.

“He works very hard at the field and he needs to work harder on his discipline away from the field with his diet,” Antony said. “As I’ve tried to explain to him, ‘You can’t get too big because that increases your chances of getting hurt. If you’re hurt and can’t play, you can’t go anywhere in this game. So, for your own good, we want you to stay in decent shape.’ “

Vargas’ weight crept up to 280 recently after a busy July that kept him on the move.

On July 8, his wife, Marta Chavez, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Kamila Angelica.

Five days later, Vargas was at Target Field to play in the All-Star Futures Game. He put on a show during World Team batting practice and went 1 for 4 with a double off the right-field wall.

A few days after that, he played in the Eastern League All-Star Game.

“We all know, when you’re traveling around it’s harder to maintain a disciplined diet than when you’re in your routine during the season,” Antony said. “It’s all part of the learning curve, the learning process. When you talk to all the coaches, the strength guys, the trainers, they all talk about how hard he works.

“You watch him, he’s out there early. The stuff he does on the field, the stuff he does in the weight room, preparing for the game and all that, there’s never been any complaints on that. It’s always been: ‘He’s got to watch his diet and be disciplined away from the field.’ “

Perry Castellano, the Twins’ strength and conditioning coordinator, had Vargas out early each day in Chicago, pushing him and keeping him focused.

“I don’t think Vargas is struggling with his weight,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I think he knows exactly where he’s at. He’s just a young guy ... a big, big strong guy. Whether he struggles with that or not, we’ve got Perry here. Perry will keep right on top of him.”

The comparisons to former Twins slugger David Ortiz already have started, and Big Papi has taken a shine to Vargas during their previous interactions while in Fort Myers for spring training and when the Boston Red Sox star has returned to town for rehab work.

Despite his large frame, Ortiz has found ways to extend his career into his late 30s through diet and conditioning. The Twins hope Vargas can do the same.

“David Ortiz, we never had a problem with him when he was with us, with weight or anything else,” Gardenhire said. “He worked his tail off, too. I don’t worry about Vargas. He works really, really hard. If he keeps working, he’ll be fine.”

Massive quantities of broccoli should help, too.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.