Vargas looks to Big Papi for inspiration
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Kennys Vargas isn't just a physical doppelganger of Twins-era David Ortiz. He remains a willing prot?g? paying close attention to the Boston Red Sox slugger, whose farewell tour began in earnest Wednesday with the Grapefruit L...
FORT MYERS, Fla. - Kennys Vargas isn’t just a physical doppelganger of Twins-era David Ortiz. He remains a willing protégé paying close attention to the Boston Red Sox slugger, whose farewell tour began in earnest Wednesday with the Grapefruit League opener at JetBlue Park.
“It’s an honor to be in this situation,” Vargas said Wednesday, “with him being in his last year and me going to play against him in a spring training game. I want to enjoy his last year.”
It could be hard to do that from Triple-A Rochester, which is where Vargas, 25, appears likely to start his season. Blocked by Korean star Byung Ho Park and former all-star Carlos Quentin, the switch-hitting Vargas is admittedly surprised to still be with the Twins and doing all he can to get his career out of neutral.
After getting sent all the way down to Double-A last July, Vargas failed to impress enough to regain the designated hitter spot he held last Opening Day in the majors. The Twins challenged him to lose weight this offseason, and he wisely heeded those orders.
After finishing last season at 290 pounds, Vargas dropped 15 by watching his diet carefully.
“I minimized portions,” he said before walking in three trips in a 7-4 win over the Red Sox. “I made an adjustment. I still have rice and bread, but the portions are smaller.”
Giving up desserts wasn’t an issue.
“I don’t really like dessert,” he said.
A lighter Vargas was a more productive Vargas in the Puerto Rican Winter League, where he was named league Most Valuable Player. He hit seven regular-season homers for Mayaguez, batting .308 with a .915 combined on-base/slugging percentage in 120 at-bats.
“I feel good now,” he said. “I don’t want to lose too much weight.”
Working with Mayaguez manager Pat Kelly was a boon to Vargas’ shaken confidence.
“He made me trust in myself again,” Vargas said.
Extensive video study was part of the overhaul, as well.
“I went back to the videos and tried to figure out what I did in 2014 that I didn’t do in 2015,” Vargas said. “That part was kind of on my own. I think I did a pretty good job of figuring out what I need to do.”
The biggest thing he noticed was that he became too pull conscious last season instead of trusting his natural ability to take the ball out to all fields. This winter, Vargas was able to produce three opposite-field homers along with two more to dead center.
He fell into a 2-for-22 tailspin at the Caribbean Series, but added another homer and made an impression on Ortiz, who traveled from his offseason home in Santo Domingo to watch.
“I lifted weights with him at the gym,” Vargas said. “We didn’t really talk about baseball. We were just talking about the family and other good things. I told him I’m really happy to know him. The last four years, he’s been so good to me. I’ve learned a lot watching him do things on the field, off the field.”
Ortiz, who befriended Vargas on a minor-league rehab assignment, sent his understudy a starter set of gold chains after his breakout season in 2014, which included two productive months in the majors and the Twins’ minor league player of the year award.
Ortiz, 40, was pleased to see the changes Vargas was able to make to his body.
“He was really happy when he saw me in the Dominican,” Vargas said. “He saw I lost a couple pounds and told me to just keep working. He said to me, ‘That’s the way you have to take it. Just keep concentrating. Go to spring training and try to put on a show.’ “
Despite the age gap, it hasn’t been lost on Vargas that it took Ortiz until he was 27 to put his career in overdrive. From 1997 through 1999, he bounced up and down between the majors and the minors, totaling 10 homers with bad Twins teams.
Perhaps the Twins would have been more patient with Vargas last season if they hadn’t pulled themselves back into the postseason chase, but after a slow first half, Vargas gave way to Miguel Sano.
Ortiz, who infamously was non-tendered in the winter of 2002-03, reminded Vargas that even one of the great clutch hitters in baseball history had to wait his turn.
“He was in my spot years and years ago,” Vargas said. “He just trusted in himself, and he found a spot and (won) three World Series.”
Those talks helped Vargas enter camp with the right attitude.
“My mind is good,” he said. “I know it’s a tough situation right here, but in my heart I know I can play in the majors. It’s a new year, a new opportunity. I still have to prove I can play at this level.”