It’s a moment of triumph that Kennys Vargas never will forget. Verone High School was playing for its conference championship, and the score was tied. The crowd was going crazy as Vargas, Verone’s star player, stepped up. If he could connect, his Canovanas, Puerto Rico, school would be a champion.
“It was exciting. Everyone was yelling,” Vargas said, raising his arms to demonstrate the frenzy. “All [the fans] are like, ‘Ayyyyy!!!’ ”
Sure enough, he delivered. On the game’s final play, Vargas hit ...
“I loved playing basketball more than baseball when I was in school,” Vargas said of his dunking days. “My mother made me play baseball, because she said that was my future.”
Elda Vargas was right. Her son’s future arrived last August, when the 6-5 slugger made his Twins debut on his 24th birthday, slashing a two-run, ground-rule double off White Sox ace Chris Sale. From there, Vargas posted one of the hottest debut months in major league history and made himself a major, if unexpected, part of the Twins’ rebuilt lineup. He will report to Fort Myers, Fla., next month has a good chance of claiming a major league roster spot for good.
“I don’t say that. I have to work hard and show I’m good enough,” Vargas said Saturday from TwinsFest at Target Field. “Last year, I swing at too many bad pitches. I need to stop doing that and take more walks.”
If he does, he could blossom into a feared hitter, a rare switch hitter with moonshot power, in the middle of the Twins lineup.
“I know that when we had a solid No. 4 hitter in our lineup last year, we scored a lot of runs. [Chris] Colabello early in the year, and then [in August], Kennys came and it made a difference,” third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. “Having him in the middle of the lineup was great for us. I really think he has the swing and the balance to do it for a long time.”
That’s what the Twins hope, too, and if he does, count on Vargas to become one of the most popular players in team history. His outgoing personality and constant laughter make him a dream for the team’s marketing department, especially if he can unleash 400-foot cannon shots with regularity.
“His play on the field is going to drive that. He’s had only a short stint so far, and we don’t want to put any undue pressure on him,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “But assuming if he plays at a level that he’s capable of, I don’t think there’s any doubt that he can someday turn into an absolute superstar. I mean, the fans are going to love him. And a lot of it comes down to a pretty simple thing: that smile.”
He smiles a lot, pretty much all the time, and after last year, he has plenty of reason to. Vargas opened the season at Class AA New Britain and bashed 15 home runs by the All-Star break. He was selected to the Futures Game, where he put on a batting practice power display. Three weeks later, he was in the big leagues, and by racking up 38 hits and 24 RBI in August, he put himself in the company of Joe DiMaggio and Albert Pujols for the hottest debut month.
The reason for the incredible start? “Kamila,” he said confidently. “I do it for her.”
Not a bad motivation. Kamila Angelica Vargas Chaves is his daughter, born a week before the Futures Game, and the best thing that happened to him during his storybook year.
“I was happy every day all year,” Vargas said with a laugh. “I got married [to Martha Chaves; their anniversary is next week], went to the Futures Game, made the big leagues and had Kamila. Good, good year.”
Now it’s a matter of repeating it. Vargas eventually cooled off as pitchers learned how to get him out, and he batted only .228 in September. He struck out 63 times in 215 at-bats, and walked only 12 times in two months, prompting some worries that he will swing himself out of the majors. But Vargas focused on the problem this winter, and easily led the Clemente League in Puerto Rico with 33 walks in 37 games.
“I’m getting smarter. Pitchers don’t fool me as much,” Vargas said. “My swing feels really good.”
He’s had that swing since he was 4, Vargas said, and by the time he was an overgrown 8-year-old shortstop, he was hitting for power.
“I always hit a home run every time my mother came to a Little League game,” Vargas said. “She knew I could hit, so she kept telling me, ‘Go play baseball. Stop playing basketball and go hit.’ ”
It took a few years before Vargas listened, however, because dunking and shooting and blocking shots is so much fun. Vargas was 6-1 by the time he reached high school “and really skinny,” so he became Verone’s star center. Vargas says he averaged 25 points and 17 rebounds one season — “I could really jump then. I can’t anymore,” he shrugged — and he loved making the crowds in his home gym roar.
He realized he would never be Puerto Rico’s Tim Duncan, however, especially as he grew heavier as he approached graduation, so he took his mother’s advice and gave up basketball outside of school. He wasn’t drafted by a big-league team when he graduated in 2008, and planned to enroll in college, hoping to become a businessman eventually.
His mother wasn’t discouraged, though. She paid to send him to a camp in the Dominican Republic, where trainers and instructors with connections to scouts worked with him. They taught him to play the outfield and third base. Eventually, the Twins became intrigued by his power and signed him in February 2009 for an $80,000 bonus.
Vargas hit right away, but the power came more slowly, in part because his weight ballooned. Vargas managed only 12 home runs in his first three rookie-level seasons — then was hit with a 50-game suspension for using the banned supplement Phentermine in an effort to lose weight. Then he battered Midwest League pitching in 2012, batting .318 with 11 homers, belted another 19 in the big Florida State League ballparks in 2013, and set himself up for his breakthrough 2014 season.
Vargas hopes 2015 is even better — but he’s got a fallback position, too. He worked for two years as a barber at a shop called El Monstruo during high school, and he’s cut his teammates’ hair at every level in the minor leagues. The Twins’ spring complex even has a barbers chair, named for him.
And he’s already got his first big-league customer.
“He’s my new barber,” Twins first baseman [and buzz-cut wearer] Joe Mauer said. “My haircuts are pretty simple. But I know he’ll give me a good line in the back.”