FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Kennys Vargas knows the door is wide open for him to stake his claim as the Twins' everyday designated hitter to open the season, and he's intent on making the most of his opportunity.
Vargas, a natural first baseman, had been blocked by players such as Byungho Park, Trevor Plouffe, Miguel Sano and Joe Mauer in the past. But Park was taken off the 40-man roster, Plouffe was released and Sano was moved back to third base, giving Vargas the opportunity to become the regular DH and primary backup to Mauer.
Vargas, 26, is coming off a promising season, hitting .230/.333/.500 with 10 homers and 20 RBIs in 47 games. He knows he has to earn his spot on the roster this spring, with Park still in camp along with non-roster invitee Ben Paulsen. Vargas spent his offseason playing in his native Puerto Rico as well as the Dominican Republic, where he received hitting tips from 12-time All-Star Manny Ramirez.
"I want to take advantage of the opportunity and stay with the big club," Vargas said. "I worked with Manny Ramirez in the Dominican. He talked with me about elevating the ball and about consistently hitting the ball hard."
Vargas worked on elevating the ball more before last year as well, and the results were evident. He went from an average launch angle of 4.7 degrees in 2015 to 14.7 degrees in '16, allowing him to drive the ball into the outfield instead of into the ground.
It helped him cut his groundball rate from 51.2 percent to 37.5 percent, while doubling his fly-ball rate from 23.1 percent to 47.9 percent. In his career, Vargas has hit .241 with a .259 slugging percentage on grounders, but .269 with an .827 slugging percentage on fly balls.
"Last year, I tried to elevate the ball consistently and I got the home runs out of it," Vargas said. "But I've still been working on that. I hope I have a better year this year."
Twins manager Paul Molitor said he prefers having one player be the everyday DH, rather than having to shuffle players around at the position. He noted that this is likely Vargas' best chance to claim the role. But Vargas has yet to develop into a consistent hitter, so the Twins are being cautious before anointing him as a starter. Vargas will also miss time this spring to play for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, leaving camp to train in Arizona on March 6.
"It's probably his best opportunity he's ever had as far as extending the amount of at-bats he [will] get," Molitor said. "He's had some spurts where they've been relatively consistent. For me, he's never really found a way yet to take advantage of that. But there's still a lot of people in our system, scouting in particular, where their confidence on this guy is really high, once given an opportunity."
Vargas, though, has a supporter in his corner in fellow hulking slugger Sano, who believes that Vargas has breakout potential this year, which would go a long way toward lengthening Minnesota's lineup.
"He's a great player," Sano said. "I love Kennys. He plays hard. For us, it's important that Kennys has a lot of homers. I think he has a chance to hit 30 homers if he's in the lineup every day. It's a great opportunity for him."