Kennys Vargas Gets His Opportunity

Yesterday morning, the Twins dealt Sam Fuld to Oakland for Tommy Milone, in a trade that I feel is getting somewhat unwarranted criticism. I’ve seen the term “highway robbery” thrown around, often with the addendum that the Twins “won the trade.”

In a vacuum, yes, Tommy Milone for Sam Fuld is kind of ridiculous. Milone is a 27-year-old lefty with a career 3.84 earned run average who could anchor the back end of the Twins rotation for years. Fuld is a 32-year-old fourth outfielder with a career .240/.323/.337 slash. However, Milone didn’t really have any value to Oakland as their No. 8 starter, and Fuld fills an immediate need as a platoon partner for Jonny Gomes.

Furthermore, if Coco Crisp‘s injury continues to linger, Fuld could easily slide over and play center. Oakland is in win-now mode, and Fuld can help them do that. Don’t get me wrong, I still love this trade for the Twins. All I’m saying is that it isn’t nearly the catastrophe people are saying it is for the A’s.

Oddly enough, the most fantasy-relevant factor in this trade is the fact that, in a corresponding move, the Twins called up Kennys Vargas to take Fuld’s roster spot. Vargas seems due to receive plenty of playing time, so now is as good a time as ever to discuss Minnesota’s burly beast of a first baseman.

Vargas — who turns 24 today — is one of those guys who projects to have a much higher ceiling in fantasy than in real life. He’s a poor defender. He’s even slower than his 6’5″, 275 pound frame would lead one to expect (if you watched the Futures Game and saw him get completely gassed on a double, you know what I’m talking about).

As you have undoubtedly guessed, Vargas’ calling card is his light-tower power. However, thanks to the reality that he’s essentially a one-tool player, Vargas has never found himself on a top organizational prospects list here at FanGraphs. The big question with him, as with most guys his size, was whether he would be able to make consistent contact against high-level pitching. The fact that he largely answered that question with an emphatic ‘yes’ this season — to the point where he earned an invite to the Futures Game and a promotion to the majors – is why the perception of Vargas has grown so much brighter since the offseason.

Vargas’ improvement this year really is quite impressive. The power is certainly still there, as he’s hit 17 homers and 17 doubles through 97 games, but what really stands out is his increased ability to make contact. Vargas had never posted a strikeout rate lower than 20% at any level, until he whiffed in just 16.8% of his plate appearances in Double-A this year. That’s a pretty outstanding rate for a 275-pound slugger with a career minor-league isolated power of .205.

Another thing that I like about Vargas is that he’s a nearly identical hitter from both sides of the plate. The switch-hitter has a career .283/.363/.502 slash against righties and a .290/.366/.464 line against lefties. No need for any platoon concerns here.

I’ve seen and heard David Ortiz comps with Vargas, and that’s pretty irresponsible. I get it, they’re both bat-only power prospects who came up through the same system (albeit nearly two decades apart), but Ortiz showed far more power in his minor-league career with two 30-homer seasons, and did so at a younger age.

I think Vargas’ ceiling is that of a poor man’s Big Papi, but that’s still a heck of a player. Even if he does have contact struggles in the majors, his on-base ability should mitigate that somewhat, as his career walk rate is above 10%. Target Field certainly isn’t the ideal park for a power hitter, but those of you in AL-only or very deep mixers could do worse than kick the tires on Vargas.

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Scott Strandberg is a writer by day and musician by night. He is the film critic for The Norman Transcript, and his baseball writing has been featured at The Hardball Times and MLBDepthCharts. He enjoys cooking and professional wrestling. Follow him on Twitter @ScottStrandberg.

3 Responses to “Kennys Vargas Gets His Opportunity”

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  1. kab21 says:

    Statistically Ortiz didn’t show far more power than Vargas. 1 HR/21.5 AB’s vs 1HR/23.5 and a .200isoP vs .230 isoP. Ortiz was a year younger but most of the gap in MiLB stats is due to 20 pts of BA and a year in SLC. If Vargas played one more season in one of the best hitting parks in AAA there would be very little difference in MiLB stats.

    The reason that the Ortiz comps are irresponsible is that Ortiz took an atypical path for a prospect and posted better stats (especially at his peak) in the MLB and that shouldn’t be an expectation of any prospect.

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  2. jdbolick says:

    I’ve seen a lot of writers on various sites suggesting that Sam Fuld is a platoon partner with Gomes, but Fuld is similarly better against LHPs than RHPs. As weak as Gomes has been against RHPs for his career, Fuld has actually been worse.

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    • I was wondering whether to include this part in the actual article or not; I decided not to, because it would have made the piece far too much about the trade than about Vargas himself. But you raise a good point — one that others are probably wondering too — so here’s my explanation of why I like them for a platoon:

      It makes more sense if you don’t look at it as a binary R/L platoon. Fuld is essentially the same hitter vs. LHP as he is vs. RHP. His career BABIP vs. RHP is 28 points higher than vs. LHP. If you average that out, his slashes vs LHP/RHP are pretty much identical (I know this is somewhat reductive, but I don’t want to write a novel here), and he adds a ton of value against righties with his stolen-base numbers.

      The main reason they’ll make great platoon partners is because their skill sets are polar opposites. Gomes is pretty much solely a power bat. Fuld is a threat on the basepaths and a plus defender. None of those skills overlap between the two players.

      Gomes is a far better hitter than Fuld, period. So yes, you’re right that his OPS against RHP is better than Fuld’s. However, Fuld adds a ton of value on the basepaths against RHP — value he does not provide vs. LHP — and he’s an infinitely better defender. For these reasons, I think you’ll see Fuld getting a ton of starts against righties.

      At the end of the day, if Crisp is healthy, it’ll be a surprise anytime either Fuld or Gomes plays a full nine innings. Fuld will be used as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Gomes, Gomes will pinch-hit for Fuld, etc. That’s definitely a platoon, just not one based solely on handedness. Thoughts?

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