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03/06/10 5:16 PM EST

Niese, Nieve duking it out for fifth spot

Other factors may be put in place to decide competition

VIERA, Fla. -- Shortly after Mets training camp opened, general manager Omar Minaya attempted to create a competition at first base between incumbent Daniel Murphy and veteran Mike Jacobs. His scenario was dispelled almost immediately though. Then manager Jerry Manuel put Angel Pagan and Gary Matthews Jr. on equal footing as candidates for the vacant center-field assignment. But his own plan to bat Jose Reyes third belied his words about the potential center-field understudy for Carlos Beltran. And the competition for the eighth-inning relief role that is under way seems likely to be determined by default.

If a genuine competition for a specific assignment exists at Mets training camp, one that will be decided by merit, it is the one between Jon Niese and Fernando Nieve for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. And that one has what Manuel has characterized as "factors to [be] considered."

Niese and Nieve. Nieve and Niese. Not much separates them alphabetically. They have pitched once in exhibition games, each on Friday in split-squad games. At first glance and considering only their circumstances and the gruesome leg injury -- Niese's was more unsettling -- each suffered last summer, Niese and Nieve appear to be mirror image of each other -- one left-handed, the other, naturally, right-handed.

Their appearances on Friday did little to distinguish one from the other. Niese started against the Marlins in a home game, pitching 2 2/3 innings, allowing one run and striking out five. Nieve was the Mets' starter against the Cardinals in a split-squad game in Jupiter, Fla. He allowed one run in three innings, surrendering three hits and two walks.

And the work of each was overshadowed by the performance of another pitcher, Niese by the spectacle of rookie Jenrry Mejia and Nieve by the four scoreless relief innings thrown by Nelson Figueroa. Pitching coach Dan Warthen witnessed Niese's work, the impact of his new and still-unpolished cutter. By Saturday morning, Warthen had received positive word of mouth about Nieve.

"Sounds like they were pretty even," Wathen said. "Each threw well."

Two weeks ago, Minaya discussed the two candidates and said the situation "will sort itself out." But situations often need a nudge. And here it is: The Mets want Niese to emerge as the winner of this competition, that according to a person familiar with the club's thinking. They believe Nieve may be better equipped to win at the big league level now, but that Niese has a higher ceiling and a greater likelihood to improve.

Their ages enter the equation. Niese is 23. Nieve will turn 28 before Niese turns 24. Nieve is out of options; Niese isn't. Nieve has too much value to a club with rotation issues to risk outrighting him to the Minor Leagues. And of course, a tiebreaker of tiebreakers, if all other factors were equal, Niese is left-handed, a beneficial attribute in a division that often is bullied by the likes of Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, Chase Utley and Brian McCann.

Moreover, the unsettled state of the bullpen has Manuel looking at Nieve as a solution. Not that the roles of the 'pen need be defined before St. Patrick's Day, but on several occasions, Manuel has described Nieve as flexible or "more flexible [than Niese]," which is a left-handed way of saying Niese is not equipped to pitch in relief. He has been groomed to start, having pitched twice in relief in his first season as a professional in 2005. Nieve has made 85 relief appearances and 161 starts in his 11 professional seasons. Indeed, he has started 18 games in the big leagues, seven with the Mets last season, and 41 relief appearances.

At this point, the Mets decline to provide public handicapping of the competition for the eighth-inning job. It seemingly would have gone to Kelvim Escobar had he arrived at camp capable of throwing 25 pitches. But his weak right shoulder has created a scramble involving Ryota Igarashi, Bobby Parnell, Sean Green and, more than likely, Nieve.

All that serves Niese well. He has recovered from that unsightly tear of his right hamstring, and he has impressed the staff with the determination he has shown since the minicamp in January. The job Niese covets hardly is his to lose. But even now, and unless the eighth-inning situation "sorts itself out," the job may be his to keep.

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