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12/11/08 2:25 AM EST

Mets remain in market for No. 4 starter

With bullpen bolstered, club aims to add piece to rotation

LAS VEGAS -- Considering that Omar Minaya's "wildest dreams" did not include the acquisitions of both Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz this offseason, it's perhaps fair to say that the Mets' general manager is something of a realist. He admitted that much even before acquiring Putz, saying that he did not expect to pursue A.J. Burnett or Derek Lowe, the top two free-agent starters still available.

"I'm probably not going to be in there right now, financially," Minaya said. "Not after spending all the money that I did on K-Rod."

Rodriguez's contract is worth just over $12 million per year, and Putz's deal, signed before the 2007 season, will tack another $5 million onto their books. Even after trading away the contracts of Endy Chavez, who will make $2.05 million in '09, and Aaron Heilman, who is due for a raise through arbitration, the Mets will almost certainly enter next season with an increased payroll.

That, along with the fact that Minaya sees Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and John Maine as his top three starters, has driven him away from the game's priciest free agents.

Top free-agent starter CC Sabathia agreed to a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees early Wednesday morning, and prices were quickly rising for other pitchers. The Yankees offered Burnett five years and $80 million later in the day, and were reportedly closing in on a $65 million contract for Lowe.

Minaya, needing a starter but lacking such spending power, has all but bowed out of the race to acquire those two.

"I don't see it," Minaya said.

That doesn't change the fact that the Mets are still in need of at least one starting pitcher. Rookie Jonathon Niese, with three big league starts to his credit, is currently fourth on the team's depth chart. And though Minaya said he expects either Niese or fellow rookie Bobby Parnell to win the fifth starter's job out of camp, an opening remains for the fourth starter's job.

Free agents Jon Garland and Randy Wolf, or possibly even Pedro Martinez, seem well suited for that role.

Minaya also has not dismissed the possibility of left-hander Oliver Perez returning to the Mets. He and Mets manager Jerry Manuel both raved at length earlier this week about the strides Perez made with the Mets over the past two and a half seasons, and Perez would almost certainly be a cheaper alternative to either Burnett or Lowe.

Mets COO Jeff Wilpon wouldn't comment earlier this month whether or not he intended to raise his team's payroll, which sat at roughly $137 million last season. The Mets did lose significant salaries in Perez, Martinez, Moises Alou and Orlando Hernandez, but the acquisition of Rodriguez ensured that they would lose most of that payroll flexibility.

Billy Wagner will make $10.5 million next season to rehabilitate from his left elbow surgery, and Putz's contract has an $8.6 million team option for the 2010 season. It's a significant amount of money for a specific area of the team, but Minaya insisted that it's an area well worth infusing with cash.

"It's up to me to put the team together in different ways," Minaya said. "But one thing I've always said is to win championships, you've got to have a good bullpen."

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