CHICAGO – The two young sluggers put on power hitting displays during batting practice at spring training this year in Fort Myers, Fla., forcing fans and teammates to take notice.
One basher was uber prospect Miguel Sano, listed at 6-4 and 236 pounds — who ended up missing the season because of Tommy John elbow surgery.
The other was uber project Kennys Vargas, unheralded but even larger at 6-5, 273.
While Sano entered the season with an outside chance of reaching the majors, it’s Vargas who wasn’t thwarted by a season-ending injury and earning the call up to the majors. He made his debut Friday — his 24th birthday — against the White Sox. It’s the latest development in a season that has been one excellent adventure for him.
“It’s pretty special because it’s my birthday, too,” said Vargas, from Canovanas, Puerto Rico. “My first game in the big leagues, it is like a dream.”
Vargas experienced good and bad moments in his debut, a 10-8 loss to the White Sox. He was 1-for-5 with a ground-rule double that drove in two runs. He also was charged with an error when he missed a pickoff attempt that enabled Adam Eaton to advance.
“He competed pretty well out there,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Once he slowed down a little bit — the ball was going pretty quick for him even at first base — once he slowed down … I think he looked a little more comfortable.”
His debut comes during a year in which he impressed during spring training, got off to a fast start at Class AA New Britain, played in the All-Star Futures Game at Target Field and celebrated the birth of his first child.
The Twins, with at-bats available until Joe Mauer returns from the disabled list, appear committed to playing Vargas, a first baseman, until then. It’s an opportunity for Vargas to make a good impression after batting .281 with 17 homers and 63 RBI in 97 games for the Rock Cats.
“The timing is good with Joe out right now,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said. “It’s an opportunity for Kennys to get his feet wet and see how he does. If he performs and does everything he’s supposed to do, it could be an extended stay.”
A switch hitter, Vargas’ lefthanded stance and swing eerily resemble former Twins slugger David Ortiz. And he can punish a ball like Big Papi. Vargas drew 43 walks at New Britain for a .360 on-base percentage, which is a good rate.
“He can hit the ball out to all fields from both sides of the plate, but he’s also not an all or nothing type of guy,” said Brad Steil, the Twins director of minor league operations. “His strike zone and discipline are improving and he can be really dangerous when he stays patient.”
Vargas arriving in the majors is more than just a normal accomplishment. More than a few molding knives bit the dust working on this lump of clay.
Vargas was just a large kid who could hit a ball a long way — when he connected — and do little else when they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
“I remember seeing him miss the ball by 3 feet when he first signed,” Antony said. “I was like, ‘What do we got here?’ ”
Undisciplined at the plate. Hard hands in the field. And he wasn’t as sculpted as he is today. The Twins were patient and watched him pick up the game. For the past two years, they have brought him over to Fort Myers in January to get him on a conditioning program.
“He was a big, strong kid who could hit the ball a long way, but he had a lot to learn in terms of baseball fundamentals,” Steil said. “… To his credit, he has worked hard and shown improvement every year.”
Said Vargas: “When you work and believe in yourself, big things happen. “Minnesota helped me out with everything. Weight, a trainer, nutritionist. They take care of me. And I’m still working. It’s my first game, but I want to stay here for a lot of years.”