NEW YORK -- If the Mets want to assure themselves of having Victor Zambrano on their roster in Spring Training, they must tender him a contract by midnight ET on Tuesday or otherwise chance losing him via free agency. The price to retain the 31-year-old, twice-repaired and moderately successful right-handed pitcher: $2.4 million.

The club is obligated to submit a contract for at least one year for 80 percent of Zambrano's 2006 salary or he will be free to sign with any club -- the Mets included -- for any figure at the Major League minimum or more.

Zambrano and Dave Williams, the left-handed pitcher the Mets acquired from the Reds last season and a potential starter in the eyes of general manager Omar Minaya, are the only other players the Mets are considering as a non-tender. Williams, whose salary last season was $1.4 million, looms a little larger in the Mets' plans now that free agent Darren OIiver has signed with the Angels; not that the Mets were intent on re-signing Oliver.

According to the New York Daily News, Zambrano, a starter for most of his last five seasons, is willing to pitch in relief to improve his chances of returning to the Mets and to return to the big leagues earlier.

Since his acquisition in 2004, Zambrano has produced a 10-14 record and 4.42 ERA in 39 appearances, including 35 starts. He has been the perpetual project in his career, seldom pitching consistently at a level comparable with his potential.

Zambrano produced a 1-2 record and 6.75 ERA in five starts in 2006, his season ending on May 6 when he left the mound, the flexor tendon in his right elbow torn and in need of surgical repair. He had undergone Tommy John elbow surgery once previously.

The Mets have tracked his progress since then, an indication of interest in retaining him. The escalating cost of pitchers in the free-agent market gives the club another factor to consider in this scenario.