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Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes

TwinsCentric: How much longer until Byron Buxton arrives?

I made my first trip of the year to Target Field last Friday, and had a fantastic time. It was a beautiful evening and the Twins played a very crisp ballgame, winning 1-0 behind a tremendous start from Kyle Gibson.
 
Yet, as I looked around the park from my seats down the first base line, I couldn't help but feel a sense of disappointment with the sparsity of the crowd. The announced attendance of 22,794 -- their second-largest since Opening Day -- seemed overstated, with empty seats littering the lower deck.
 
The Twins moved within a game of .500 that night, and by the end of the weekend they had a winning record. In the wake of a dreadful start, this team has been playing good ball, positioning itself for relevancy in the AL Central at least early on.
 
But the fans, mired in apathy following a fourth straight 90-loss season, haven't responded by filling the stadium. Already the Twins have drawn fewer than 20,000 on five occasions; last year that happened once, in September.
 
Continuing to win games at a solid clip will help bring back some wayward fans, but what this team needs is a spark plug that generates real excitement and gets the entire baseball world buzzing.
 
They'll have one soon in Byron Buxton. But how soon?
 
Buxton's allure goes beyond the fact that he's arguably the best prospect in the game. His dynamic skill set will make him appointment viewing, because he's capable of doing amazing things on a regular basis. That's been on display at Class-AA Chattanooga over his past 10 games, during which Buxton has batted .415 with five steals, four triples and two homers -- one of them a walk-off shot on Monday night.
 
Not only will Buxton's arrival deliver an enormous marketing jolt, it will more importantly provide a huge boost on the field. He offers so many things that the Twins desperately need if they want to hang around as a contender in the AL Central.
 
Offering elite speed along with the ability to draw walks and get on base, Buxton is a prototypical leadoff hitter. When you look at the production from the top three spots in the Twins' lineup, it is obvious that they could use one of those, as the struggles of Danny Santana and others have lessened the impact of the two spots that follow in the order (often occupied by Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer):
 
No. 1 Hitter: .261/.289/.383
No. 2 Hitter: .273/.322/.445
No. 3 Hitter: .297/.374/.386
 
Twins leadoff hitters have produced the lowest OBP of any spot in the lineup save for No. 9.
 
Capable of running down any fly ball in his zip code and possessing a cannon arm, Buxton profiles as a premium defensive center fielder. The Twins have been trotting out a pseudo-platoon of Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson in center up to this point, leaving much to be desired. Buxton would fill the biggest hole in the lineup while also substantially upgrading a porous outfield defense.
 
Then there's this: In some capacity, Torii Hunter was supposedly brought on to serve in a mentorship role, but presently there aren't really any young players on the roster for him to help along -- not any that speak much English, anyway. Buxton is seemingly one of the players who stands to benefit most from Hunter's influence, but he can't do so in Chattanooga. With Hunter on a one-year deal, the Twins need to get their star prospect up in the somewhat near future if they want Hunter to be able to aid his transition to the majors.
 
When you take all these things into account, it's easy to see why the Twins might feel a bit more urgency to bring Buxton along more quickly than they typically would. But of course, all of these factors are superseded by the importance of his development.
 
They're not going to do anything that may negatively affect his ability to smoothly and successfully make the jump to the majors, nor should they. And despite his recent blazing hot streak, Buxton remains a 21-year-old coming off a lost season, with just 24 games of experience in Double-A.
 
As badly as they were burned by the Aaron Hicks experience, one could understand the Twins opting for a conservative approach with their most prized asset, waiting until September or maybe even 2016 to consider a promotion regardless of his performance in the minors.
 
However, I really can't emphasize this enough: Buxton is a different animal. He's a transcendent talent, on another level entirely from prospects such as Hicks or Danny Santana or Kennys Vargas. The Twins won't -- or at least shouldn't -- feel trepidation based on those past examples.
 
Buxton's prospect caliber matches that of a young Joe Mauer, who was installed as a big-leaguer at age 21 after just 73 games in Double-A and caught on immediately. It matches Mike Trout, who was in the majors for good at age 20. It matches Kris Bryant, who was called up by the Cubs last month after just 181 total games in the minors, and is now excelling in Chi-town.
 
Clearly, Buxton is not in line for an imminent promotion to the big leagues. He needs to continue working in Chattanooga for the time being, to prove that he's fully back on track and to keep building confidence.
 
If he does both of those things for a couple of more months, and the All-Star break is approaching, and the Twins still need his services as badly as they do now?
 
Why not?
 
For daily updates on Twins' minor league players and teams, go to the Star Tribune minor-league directory. You can find it here.
 
~~~
 
Once you're done here, head over to Twins Daily, where today you can find:
 
* Jeremy Nygaard's recap of Tuesday's minor-league action, which incuded a big game from Aaron Hicks in Triple-A.
 
* Various notes from Brandon Warne, touching on Eddie Rosario's promotion, Buxton's hot streak and more.
 

TwinsCentric: Can Kennys Vargas make 'the adjustment?'

There is no denying the fact that Kennys Vargas has been mired in an extended slump.

The Twins watched as their designated hitter swung like he was in quicksand in Seattle, making the situation worse with every swing. For the next two games he sat. The starting lineup time-out was intended to recalibrate and get him to realize that he needed to refocus on his mechanics. Collect, gather and go.

As the smoke cleared after Thursday night’s 12-2 drubbing of the Chicago White Sox, the only Twins hitter in the lineup to not reach base or score was Kennys Vargas. He struck out twice.
 

When he takes a cut, everyone in a three block radius of the ballpark can feel it as the wind changes direction on the plaza. And it is not just dirty breaking balls that have been giving Vargas fits. He is swinging through fastballs in the zone regularly as well. For instance, last year he missed a fastball 17% of the time when he offered. This year that has ballooned to 32% of his swings. Only seven other hitters this season have a higher rate than Vargas.

Trevor Plouffe, who battled through his own adjustments entering the league, recently discussed how the game of baseball is a progression for hitters. Pitchers will start a new player with fastballs in the four-spot of the strike zone and once they prove they can hit that pitch, they will start to pick at other weaknesses. For Vargas, that has been being pitches down in the zone and away. His need to hit the ball as hard as he can has resulted in empty swings or weak groundouts.

In spring training the coaching staff made it clear that Vargas should focus less on hitting for show during batting practice and work on driving the ball where it is pitched.

“I think that's a constant message we have with him and (Oswaldo) Arcia and some of the guys that have a tendency to want to have that home-run competition in BP, which doesn't mean a thing," Paul Molitor told reporters in March. "It's fun once in a while at the end of your rounds to go ahead and do some things that break up the mundane routine of having to perfect your craft, but in general it's not how you want to go about getting better as a hitter."

It was stressed that the message was not to tone down the power but rather prepare for being attacked by major league pitchers with major league velocity. Eddie Guardado’s BP fastball would be no substitute for that of Chris Sale. As the Twins were ready to leave Florida, Molitor announced that he would be starting the year with Torii Hunter or Trevor Plouffe as his cleanup candidates despite the fact that the imposing Vargas was hitting balls into the gulf on the reg. The Twins manager recognized that the young slugger was not ready to assume the demands of batting fourth.

As the first month of the regular season progressed, the question transitioned from where Vargas should hit in the lineup to whether he should be in the lineup at all. From the perspective of the coaching staff, Vargas continued to treat his pregame work as his own personal home run derby which affected his in-game performance.

“You [should] try to take batting practice that is more game-realistic. Don’t become too concerned with how far you hit them when a guy is throwing 60 mph,” Molitor told reporters this week. “It’s about trying to keep it crisp, use your barrel, keep it short, see the ball first.”

Vargas’ 2015 has been marred by not adjusting to how pitchers are approaching him. For example in the Kansas City series, Vargas was in a favorable 2-1 count against the left-handed slopper Jason Vargas (no relation). For most of his professional career, Vargas was likely used to seeing a high percentage of in-zone fastballs by minor league pitchers who were afraid of the count going 3-1. However, the pitcher Vargas threw an offspeed pitch down and away which hitter Vargas was not expecting and turned over.

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Like batting practice, the approach was all-or-nothing. He seemed to be thinking fastball the whole way and was only going to swing like it was a fastball.

To be sure, Vargas’ big leg kick and loading process are sound power generators. The issue surfaces when his pitch recognition and anticipation are out of whack and the timing mechanism breaks down. Last season after using the leg kick for the season in the minors, the Twins convinced Vargas to reduce the leg kick and load in order to cover the range of speed and breaks that he would see. In comparison to the Vargas-on-Vargas action above, in this at bat against the White Sox Sale last year shows how balanced he was and not overcommitting to a pitch.

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By the end of last season, with his confidence inflated, Vargas had returned to the big leg kick swing. Now hitting .172 and 21 strikeouts in 64 at-bats, is it time to return to the muted mechanics of 2014? Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky noted how difficult it is to get hitters who did well in the minors to revamp their mechanics - even if it is needed.

“You can't come and change,” said Brunansky. “The hardest thing to do is tell a young hitter who has had success in the minor leagues who needs to change it at the major league level because they are going to say 'I hit like this'...but [the major leagues are] a different animal.”

Brunansky stresses process. The process of making small adjustments outside the game and bring that over to the field following the national anthem. But convincing someone to make changes becomes increasingly challenging when the prep work becomes about seeing how far the ball flies. Then gain, Vargas did just fine last year with the reduced movement swing and was still able to hit the ball a country mile.

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The Twins know that Vargas is in need of adjustments and they sat him several games to drive the point home. There is an established track record for Vargas: tone it down or get the timing down. Clearly his potential is worth the trouble but with Josmil Pinto performing well with the bat in Rochester, it may be time to consider the swap.

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Oakland 12-17
Minnesota 15-13

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