The Emergence of Kennys Vargas
by, 05-12-2014 at 10:17 PM (329 Views)
Kennys Vargas, courtesy of Scott Blanchette
Without a doubt, the New Britain Rock Cats' most valuable offensive player this season has been Kennys Vargas. Vargas, a 23 year-old switch-hitting first baseman (destined to be a designated hitter), has been on our radar for some time, but has always been considered a work-in-progress. Yes, the raw power was always there, but the limited defensive ability, large strikeout totals and inconsistent spells kept Vargas off of some Twins top prospect lists.
After a brief adjustment period, Vargas seems to have figured out AA hitting. He boasts an impressive .304/.380/.528 line (a .908 OPS), with 7 home runs, 7 doubles and 22 RBIs in 142 plate appearances. More importantly, though, he has 23 strikeouts and 15 walks. Last season, Vargas struck out 105 times in 520 plate appearances (a 20.2 strikeout percentage). This season, the 23 Ks in 142 plate appearances constitute a 16.2 strikeout percentage. Yes, we are still in the part of the season where some may attribute this to a small sample size -- and perhaps that's somewhat warranted -- but Vargas' decreasing strikeouts are noteworthy. Over his last 10 games -- to make that sample size even smaller -- I calculate a 13.6 strikeout percentage. Vargas' walk rate -- 10.6% this season -- is up just a tic from last season (9.6%). Long story short, Vargas is putting more balls in play because he's striking out less often, while walking at roughly the same pace. As Brad Steil, Twins' Director of Minor League Operations recently said -- with the requisite Twins modesty -- "Vargas has come on the last couple weeks."
And those balls in play -- well, let's just say that Vargas' power tool is well defined. One thing that impresses me about Vargas is that he can hold his own from the both sides of the plate. This season, for example, he has 4 doubles and 2 homers from the right side of the plate (43 at-bats), coupled with 3 doubles and 5 homers from the left side (82 at-bats). So often, switch hitters are much, much better from one side, and merely adequate from their less dominant side. Can Vargas eventually bring to the Twins a power threat from both sides of the plate? If that's Vargas' ceiling, count me as a fan.
What impresses me most about Vargas' production this season is that he's doing it in a lineup that's largely barren of threats. Yes, Reynaldo Rodriguez, Danny Ortiz, Nate Hanson and Matt Koch have been dependable, but for other portions of his career, Vargas has batted in the same lineup with the likes of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario. In other words, he's missing another power threat, and guys with elite on-base and hitting skills. So what Vargas has done thus far in 2014, he's doing without tons of assistance. Vargas will likely play all of 2014 in New Britain. I'm excited to see what happens in a few weeks when Buxton joins the team, and then a little later, when Rosario is eligible to play. What has been a somewhat drab lineup suddenly will become exciting again. And I believe that there's tremendous value to having those 3 key players hit in the same lineup together in the minors.
A few things to keep an eye on this season for Vargas: Can he keep those strikeouts down? A change in the right direction of 4-5 percent is huge. Can he keep that average near .300? 2013 was his first season since 2009 where he batted under .300 -- .267, in fact. Finally, can he demonstrate the ability to hit good pitching from both sides of the plate?
Time will tell, but 2014 has been encouraging thus far for Vargas.