INDIANAPOLIS -- A shiver rose up to the 12th floor of the downtown Marriott on Wednesday, when the Brewers finalized a contract with free-agent starter Randy Wolf. With that deal, the market took shape, and the Mets realized that their economic thermometer may not have been functioning quite right.

Wolf, one of the headliners of the second tier of available free-agent starters, cashed in for $29.75 million over three years. Fellow free agents Jason Marquis and Jon Garland now figure to earn a little bit less than that. Joel Pineiro may command a shade more.

And the Mets, once considered a major player for any and all of the above, were left wondering how the market escalated so quickly out of their range.

Time to explore Plan B: rather than pay that price for a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, the Mets asked, why not kick in a little more cash and sign, say, John Lackey?

"How much of a separation is there with the guys that are out there that are the 'better' guys?" Mets general manager Omar Minaya asked Wednesday. "You have to take that into account."

The separation between Lackey and Wolf, quite simply, is enormous. One, while not a true ace, has found success leading a staff in Anaheim, with more than enough ability to become a fine No. 2 starter in the National League. The other pitcher, Wolf, can't match that quality.

So the Mets, who don't expect to complete any major deals at the Winter Meetings, have begun to discuss the idea of more aggressively pursuing Lackey.

And somewhere, Scott Boras began applauding.

Though Boras is not the agent for Lackey, he does represent left fielder Matt Holliday, the priciest free agent in this year's market. And Boras has been convinced for some time now that the Mets, for all their cries of frugality, are willing to spend some cash after all.

"The New York Mets have a lot of choices, and the Wilpons have had a very successful run," Boras said, referring to owner Fred Wilpon and his son, Jeff. "The Mets can sign any player they want to sign."

It's not likely to be Holliday or Jason Bay, unless the Mets' run for Lackey falls short. But the odds of acquiring the top free-agent starter on the market suddenly seem far greater than they were Monday.

If nothing else, the Mets will leave Indianapolis on Thursday with a better sense of what it will take to land Lackey. They met this week with his agent, Steve Hilliard, who is looking for something just north of the five years and $82.5 million A.J. Burnett earned from the Yankees last winter.

The comparison seems apt. Lackey, who is nine months younger than Burnett was at this time last year, is 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA in 234 career games. Prior to joining the Yankees, Burnett was 87-76 with a 3.80 ERA in 215 games.

For a free agent of Lackey's caliber, however, the market may move slowly. With no comparable pitchers on the market and plenty of demand from teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Mariners, it's not likely that Lackey will sign anytime soon.

And that fits right in with the theme of these Winter Meetings for the Mets: patience.

Though plenty can change between now and Minaya's late-afternoon flight on Thursday, a Mets source said he doesn't anticipate the club completing any transactions in Indianapolis. Contrary to a report that they were close to signing free-agent catcher Bengie Molina on Wednesday morning, the Mets have not yet exchanged numbers with Molina.

The few things that they have accomplished here can hardly be considered progress. The Mets, once major players for a second-tier free-agent starter, are beginning to shy away from that group. And the Mets, once enthusiastic about trading second baseman Luis Castillo, are now skeptical that they will be able to do so.

Instead, the Mets say, patience is the key. As if they had another choice.

"Look," Minaya said, "we know that we're in a very competitive division, and you want to make sure that you keep an eye on what your competition is doing. That being said ... we're not going to make a move just because a team or two teams in the division made moves."