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Who will be the Twins' next big-time closer?

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By Gordon Wittenmyer

Knight Ridder Newspapers

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- So, you want to be a millionaire?

If you're one of the 15 or 20 pitchers looking for a place to land in the Twins' bullpen this spring, the team has opened the path to possible fame and fortune.

Only this game requires months of high performance, and a tolerance for much greater pressure than answering a few questions on national TV, before any payoff is awarded. In fact, the big payoff could take a year or two to arrive.

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Around the Lee County Sports Complex, it's called, "So You Want to Be a Closer?"

Not that the Twins are looking for a closer. That's the beauty of it.

"It's wide-open for everybody," mused right-hander Hector Carrasco.

A byproduct of the team's ongoing rebuilding project is the elimination of the traditional single-closer role. The era ended for the Twins when Rick Aguilera was traded to the Chicago Cubs last season and was underscored this winter when free agent Mike Trombley (24 saves in '99) was signed by Baltimore.

Manager Tom Kelly says games could be closed this season by whoever's hot, by an effective middle reliever or by a combination of pitchers used for specific matchups in the ninth inning.

"Depends how the thing sets up," he said. "No sense having a closer if you're going to win 40 games.

"Finding a closer is not a priority at all. It's not even an issue."

Unless somebody forces it.

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Who could be the next Aguilera for this team? The next Dennis Eckersley or Mariano Rivera? Is he even in camp? Stay tuned.

"I'd like to get a chance to close some games," said Eddie Guardado, a left-handed specialist and set-up man for most of his six-year career.

Said newcomer Bobby Ayala, a former Seattle closer: "I felt I've had a little experience closing, and I like that job."

Carrasco: "That's what I want. If they give me the chance, I think I could be the closer."

Let the pitching begin.

HELP WANTED: Pitchers

In the land of opportunity that is the Twins' spring roster, this might be the symbolic position battle: a wide-open melee out of which performance might create a job. Or might not. And even if a single closer emerges at some point, it's not likely to happen until at least a month or two into the season.

"I feel very fortunate," said rookie Brent Stentz, the Eastern League pitcher of the year in 1998 after earning a league-leading 43 saves for Class AA New Britain. "With the financial situation (of the team), a lot of young guys are getting opportunities."

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And in this case, not just young guys. Look at the leading candidates for the would-be closer job: two wayward baseball souls seeking redemption (Ayala, Carrasco), a productive veteran looking to climb the next rung on the reliever hierarchy (Guardado) and a rookie (Stentz) with hopes of just breaking into the big leagues -- but with dreams as big as Eckersley, Sutter and Rivera.

"Right now I'm really looking to get my form back to the way it was in '98," said Stentz, 24, who struggled between Class AAA and AA last year but has 105 career minor league saves in five pro seasons, along with a repertoire that includes a fastball near 90 mph, a slider and a changeup. "It's about getting there first, and then getting the chance to pitch in that situation, and then to pitch the way I can."

Stentz knows that realistically his chance to make the team, much less becoming the closer any time soon, is a long shot.

But, again, that's the beauty of this closer/non-closer thing. They're all long shots. And they all know it. And they all want it. And until somebody takes it, it's there for any of them. Or none of them.

Nice resume

Ayala might have the best credentials of the group to suggest he should be a closer -- and the worst. A 30-year-old veteran with a powerful and durable arm, Ayala saved 18 and 19 games in 1994 and '95 as Seattle's full-time closer. But by the end of the second half of what turned into a playoff season in '95, Ayala got hit consistently and lost his job to Norm Charlton. After that, he bounced into and out of the closer role, and became a fan target of abuse and symbol of Seattle's bad bullpens of '96-98 before bottoming out in '98 -- going 1-10 with a 7.29 earned-run average and more blown saves (nine) than saves (eight). He was shipped out last spring, spent last season with Montreal and the Cubs as a set-up man and found himself without a job this winter until the Twins signed him to a minor league contract last month and invited him to camp.

"I just want to make the team and go from there," Ayala said. "I'll just be down there and ready to get the ball when they call. …; If it comes to me, I'll be happy to take the closer's role, but we've got a lot of good arms down there. It all depends who gets the ball and who gets the job done."

Carrasco, 30, seems the most confident. After struggling for a month after he returned from the disabled list -- he had a blood clot under his pitching arm removed -- Carrasco pitched well in August (2.55 ERA) and September (2.45). Then he earned saves in all seven chances as the closer for his Dominican winter league team and says his 96-mph fastball is as powerful as it ever has been.

"I think I'm ready now," said Carrasco, who broke in with the Cincinnati Reds as a closer in 1994 before alternating between set-up and closer work (11 saves in '94-95). "I'm throwing a lot of strikes and pitching better this year. I'm looking for a bigger year this year. Before I worried about being consistent. But there's no more worries now.

"I'm not going to say I'm going to be the closer. I've got to do my job first. But I think I have a lot of chance to be the closer."

So do Ayala, Guardado and Stentz. And Bob Wells, Dan Perkins, Travis Miller and Rich Batchelor for that matter. Then there's young Joe Mays, who looks like a starter for now but has the stuff that has Kelly and his coaching staff talking about him as a possible closer someday.

Now it's just a matter of waiting to see who's still standing at the end of this game.

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