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Mets shift focus to upgrading rotation

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LAS VEGAS -- Once the ink dries on baseball's most significant free-agent signing of this offseason, the Mets can officially shift their offseason priorities. Revelry won't last long in the team's Bellagio suite, because there is plenty of work left to be done. And Omar Minaya knows it

The general manager, who on Tuesday engineered Francisco Rodriguez's agreement with the Mets, made it quite clear that pitching remains his top priority. And though holes remain in his bullpen, to be certain, the most pressing need now lies at the back end of the rotation. The Mets have just three established starters heading into next season, and, regardless of whether or not Jonathon Niese earns a spot in the rotation, they will need to acquire at least one starter.

The options are plentiful, but so is the competition. And so one Mets official speculated on Tuesday that the team's search for a starter might not end for some time.

His reasoning is logical. The Mets never held realistic hopes of acquiring CC Sabathia, widely considered to be the top starter available, and instead have focused on the next tier of free agents. The Yankees and Braves appear to have entered a bidding war for A.J. Burnett, seemingly removing him from reach. And Derek Lowe and Oliver Perez are affiliated with Scott Boras, who often waits as long as possible before allowing his clients to sign.

All of which means that despite having Rodriguez in tow, the Mets may employ an incomplete roster for some time to come.

"We have three guys," Minaya said, referring to Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and John Maine. "But we've seen that with pitching, you cannot just count on three guys. As far as I feel that the quality of those three guys is pretty good, I think that we still have to fill in those two other areas. We have to upgrade."

The Mets plan to meet with Boras before the Winter Meetings conclude on Thursday, but they are not close to a deal with any of his clients.

And although they have been connected with players such as Jon Garland, Jason Marquis and Randy Wolf, such speculation remains just that -- speculation. Those pitchers may be options, but they are certainly not top ones. As long as Perez, for one, remains on the market, the Mets will have a viable alternative.

"Remember, when we got Oliver, he was in Triple-A," Minaya said. "He even had a bad ERA in Triple-A, but the stuff was there. He helped us out. And I think it's a credit to the coaching staff. Each guy who worked with him made him better. And it's a credit to Oliver, too, that Oliver himself put up the extra time and effort."

Perez didn't lose a game after Aug. 3, and lasted at least six full innings over a stretch of 13 starts from June through September.

"I thought Oliver Perez had become very consistent," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "I thought he was able to repeat his delivery for the most part, and Oliver Perez also enjoyed the big stage. When big games came, he pitched very well."

Manuel might as well have been talking about Rodriguez. Because despite all the talk and all the rumors regarding starting pitching, no move in baseball was as significant as the one the Mets are expected to announce at some point on Wednesday.

By signing Rodriguez pending a physical, the Mets patched up their most conspicuous hole, and ensured that their Winter Meetings would be productive -- regardless of what they do in the final two days. Minaya said just after he arrived in Las Vegas on Sunday evening that he expected these Winter Meetings to be fruitful, and he needed just two full days to make good on that talk.

Rodriguez is not simply a closer -- he was statistically the best closer on the market. And though the Mets might not be able to match the sheer star power of that signing in their search for a starter, they're more than liable to try. Minaya's acquisitions of Santana, Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and others in recent years have only affirmed the general manager's tendency to make a splash.

And so Tuesday's free-agent fireworks, despite the Mets' silence regarding them, may be just the beginning. Even if nothing else of significance may come out of these Winter Meetings, the Mets have two more days to talk to agents, to talk to clubs, to potentially lay the groundwork for new deals or new acquisitions.

They are days that the Mets do not intend to waste.

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