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12/02/08 10:00 AM EST

Mets to focus on pitching in Las Vegas

Minaya aiming to upgrade bullpen, rotation for '09 and beyond

NEW YORK -- Every so often, for those listening closely, a rumor regarding a catcher or an infielder will float over Queens -- even this offseason hasn't deprived the Mets of that. But for each one of those increasingly few rumors, there seem to be a dozen or more regarding pitching. And that makes sense, because pitching is what the Mets need.

So perhaps, while in Las Vegas next week, Mets general manager Omar Minaya will speak to other baseball executives regarding a position player or two. Perhaps he'll even strike a deal. But it's a near certainty that Minaya will keep at least one eye trained on the pitching market, with some rather specific deals and signings in mind.

More specifically, Minaya's starting point at next week's Winter Meetings concerns the end game. Lacking a closer -- and an entire back end of the bullpen, for that matter -- he will concentrate first on the free-agent market, which this year contains two of the game's best. Both Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes are available, and though the Mets have not made formal offers to either, they could do so in Vegas.

Landing one of those two closers has been the team's top priority since last season ended, and that isn't likely to change soon. But the Winter Meetings, which run from Dec. 8-11 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, could also give the Mets an opportunity to explore other options.

"The free-agent class is better than last year, so teams are going to try to address needs with free agency," Minaya said after the GM Meetings last month. "If they can't, they'll make trades."

Count Minaya among those considering the latter option. The Mets need a closer during an offseason in which there is a glut of them available, and one Mets official recently said that the team doesn't view either Rodriguez or Fuentes in a "must-have" way.

There are reasons, of course, for his seemingly cavalier attitude toward one of the team's most conspicuous holes. The Rockies are openly shopping Huston Street. The Astros are listening to offers for Jose Valverde. The Mariners may be willing to part with J.J. Putz. And so if the Mets find free-agent prices too steep -- Fuentes is reportedly seeking a three-year deal worth more than $10 million per year, and Rodriguez would command something more than that -- they will have leverage in the trade market.

Reports have already linked the Mets to Valverde, Wood and Street, whom they view as a setup man for one of the top free-agent closers. One report earlier this offseason linked the Mets to Bobby Jenks of the White Sox, though they denied such interest. But what's clear is that if the Mets want to pursue a trade, the Winter Meetings are the place to do it.

Less widely available on the trade market will be quality starting pitching, the kind that the Mets could use just as badly. Though they never seemed likely to pursue top free-agent lefty CC Sabathia, the Mets always had interest in pitchers within the second tier -- namely Derek Lowe, A.J. Burnett and their own free agent, Oliver Perez. To date, they've been quiet on that front, watching as the Yankees dominate early free-agent proceedings.

But with Pedro Martinez unlikely to return and Perez liable to sign somewhere else, the Mets will need to sign at least one new starter. Seems the Winter Meetings would be a fine place to look.

Every other team need -- a left fielder, a second baseman, perhaps even a catcher -- has become secondary to pitching, and the Winter Meetings aren't likely to change that. The Mets will be active, but only in specific areas. They're willing to spend, but not without discretion.

One rumor that could gain steam in Las Vegas is that of a trade involving reliever Aaron Heilman, who openly campaigned for a rotation spot last month. Heilman said he would want to start for the Mets or seek a starting job elsewhere, and -- needing both starting pitching and a bullpen makeover -- the Mets might just take him up on his wish.

Minaya can worry about these pitching issues almost exclusively because the rest of his team is all but set. The Mets have a fine infield, and though they would like an upgrade at second base, that's more of a luxury at this point. They have an adequate outfield, and the re-signing of Fernando Tatis gives them depth -- both there and off the bench. And so, with two months remaining in the offseason and the Winter Meetings looming, the Mets remain fixated on pitching.

Perhaps they'll find some in the Nevada desert. It is their first, foremost and most pressing care.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.