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TWINS GIVE AGUILERA CHANCE TO START

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If the first day of spring training is a barometer, Rick Aguilera may accomplish what many people consider the impossible.

At least, that's the view from Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, who has seen just about everything in a long career as player and manager.The right-handed Aguilera, who is one of the game's top closers, has recorded a club-record 184 saves since he became a reliever in 1989. But all those glittering numbers won't help him in his new venture.

Aguilera was traded to Boston on July 6 when he was caught up in the Twins' effort to dump hefty salaries. The two sides agreed during the offseason to re-unite with the understanding Aguilera would be a starter.

No one in camp, including Kelly and Aguilera, can remember anyone converting back to a starter after so many years as a relief man. They couldn't even recall anyone trying, but those facts didn't dampen either one's enthusiasm.

The last time Aguilera spent a full season as a starter was in 1987 with the New York Mets. He was injured most of 1988 and started 11 games for the Twins in 1989. Since then it's been all bullpen work for the 30-year-old.

"I love challenges and this is certainly a challenge," Aguilera said Sunday. "It feels great to be here and the only way I was able to come back was in a starting role.

"I am very excited about it. I'm not exactly sure what adjustments are involved. I will have to be in better physical shape, though I can't say which role is more difficult."

The Twins had been trying to make Aguilera a starter for years, but never had a closer. The emergence of Dave Stevens last season, however, opened the doors for Aguilera.

Kelly believes Aguilera's work ethic and intelligence are major plusses.

"If anyone can do it, he can. And it's not like we're teaching an old dog new tricks. He has started before," Kelly said. "You are dealing with a pretty smart guy. I guess it hasn't been done much and a lot of people think he can't do it, but it's not like this is a total conversion.

"We got him originally (from the Mets) to be a starter. He's always been a focus guy when he pitches. I don't think you'll see his mind wander like in a lot of younger pitchers, who give up three or four runs before they get it back."

"Aguilera didn't need to worry about holding runners on in being a closer and he will have to work on that, but just in what I saw today I believe he can do it," Kelly said.

Aguilera said he is looking forward to starting about 30 to 35 games. The most he started in a season was 20 in 1986 with the Mets when he finished with a 10-7 record and 3.88 ERA. He started 17 games for the Mets in '87 and finished at 11-3 with a 3.60 ERA. He had a combined 32 saves with Minnesota and Boston last season.

"The big thing is staying focused," Aguilera said. "I can't assume one is harder than the other, but if you work hard you should do well. There is no time frame set on this, hopefully I can stay in it the whole season."