FORT MYERS, FLA. – Torii Hunter made a silly face after watching a youngster who’s built like a battleship launch approximately 275 moonshots over the fence in batting practice Monday.
Hunter’s eyes grew wide as pancakes at the mention of Kennys Vargas’ Popeye-the-Sailor-Man power.
“He is so strong, it’s unbelievable,” Hunter said.
Vargas has been frustrated this spring, though. Too many swings and misses led the Twins designated hitter to tinker with his swing and his stance, but nothing clicked to the point where he felt completely comfortable.
So he decided to return to his approach from last season.
The ka-boom sound of a baseball flying off his bat Monday made him happy.
“I feel great today,” he said.
Vargas put on a power display in batting practice that left teammates and coaches, even former manager Tom Kelly, howling with some good-natured ribbing.
Vargas hit one towering shot after another over the fence and toward an adjacent office building during a workout at CenturyLink Sports Complex.
“That was impressive,” Joe Mauer said. “Not too many guys have that.”
“We lost all the balls,” Kelly joked to another staff member as they walked off the field.
Everyone around the team gushes about Vargas’ raw power and ability to hit the ball really hard and really far. Even a particular security guard, who whispered “Got a second?” and then led me down a tunnel to the dugout at Hammond Stadium, where he pointed to a bank of lights high above the right-field wall.
“He hit those lights in batting practice,” the guard said.
Vargas undeniably can launch high-arching rockets, but can he be consistent enough to hold down the primary DH job this season? That’s what the Twins are hoping for and trying to discern in spring training.
Ideally, manager Paul Molitor would be able to write down Vargas’ name 130 times as a switch-hitting DH this season. Players with Vargas’ size (6-5, 289 pounds) and strength don’t come along often, and his power potential certainly makes the lineup look different.
The Twins are determined to make Vargas earn that job, though, after he produced mixed results in his 53-game audition last season. He had a blistering start, posting nine home runs with 38 RBI. But he also struck out 63 times in 215 at-bats in his first taste of big-league pitching.
Vargas has tweaked his mechanics and stance throughout spring training in search of more consistency and a reduction in strikeouts. He’s also lost 10 pounds and wants to drop five more so that he enters the season in top shape.
Vargas stayed behind with a group of veterans Monday while the Twins played the Phillies in Clearwater. That allowed him extra work in the batting cage, where he spent an additional 30 minutes post-workout as former great Tony Oliva watched closely, offering pointers and encouragement.
“He’s a smart kid,” Mauer said. “He wants to be great.”
Mauer told Vargas before the workout to cut it loose and have fun. Hunter implored him not to worry so much about striking out.
“When you look at some of the best power hitters in the game, they all strike out 150 times or more,” Hunter said. “Nobody cares about your strikeouts. When they look at you hitting 35 home runs with 100 RBI, they don’t look at those strikeouts. Strikeouts don’t matter for a guy like him. He has to be the threat in our lineup.”
Take the good with the bad, right?
“It’s not bad,” Hunter said. “He’s a power guy. That’s his job. Go out and be who you are. Don’t be afraid to strike out. That’s part of the game.”
Asked to compare Vargas’ natural power to other guys he’s seen throughout his long career, Hunter mentioned David Ortiz, Mo Vaughn, Mark Trumbo and Giancarlo Stanton.
Vargas still has only 215 big-league at-bats, so patience is necessary. He’s still learning how to hit at this level, how to make adjustments as pitchers adjust to him. That’s his next challenge.
But he packs a powerful punch in that swing, and that’s something worth cultivating every day, knowing it won’t always be perfect. He’s going to hit moonshots. And he’s going to strike out often.
“You’ve got to allow him to have his bumps and bruises,” Hunter said. “And if he runs into 25 home runs, I don’t care if he strikes out 200 times. When you see him strike out, I would encourage everybody to say, ‘OK, that’s just normal.’ You’re going to get the reward.”