NEW YORK -- So often during their 2006 season, the Mets were unsure of the identity of the next day's starting pitcher. Beginning in late April and even in the postseason, their announced rotation frequently came with an announced notation. So conditional were their pitching plans that "possible pitchers" replaced "probable pitchers" as the headline and "TBA" often was the monogram of the next day's pitcher. The uncertainty established a tone that has carried into their offseason. As was the case until the day before their Oct. 19 exit from the playoffs, the Mets are looking for a starter. Now they're headed for Orlando, home of the Mouse and the site of the Winter Meetings, again hoping to find a starter or two -- even after the re-signing of Tom Glavine on Friday.
Glavine's return eliminates some urgency. But whether it's this week in Central Florida or some time before the Mets migrate to Port St. Lucie in February, general manager Omar Minaya may have to play the part of the Sorcerer's Apprentice to restore the team's rotation to what it needs to be for the Mets to compete for another division championship. Not that the Mets need to identify their second-game starter before the calendar runs out of Christmas shopping days, but they were lacking quantity as well as quality as Minaya packed for the convention. Orlando Hernandez and Glavine were under contact. The rest of the rotation was under construction. Recovering/rehabbing Pedro Martinez was, at best, nine months short of pitching to big-league hitters. And free agent Steve Trachsel was gone, not pursued by the club for which he won 15 games last season. Minaya, manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson were left with a pool of seven pitchers, mostly untested or of modest resume, from which to create a rotation. Minaya didn't see the circumstances as quite so dire. The October performances of John Maine and Oliver Perez and his softly sold assessment of Dave Williams had him thinking the Mets were armed and ... well, something approaching dangerous. "We're always looking to improve if we can," Minaya said. "Anything that makes us better short-term or long-term, position player or pitcher. I think some of the [trades] we've made for pitchers already may help us in 2008 or 2009. But if you're talking about 2007, then, yes, right now we feel we have the [position] players we want, and we are focused on addressing our pitching -- rotation and bullpen. "And with Tom back, I think we can do what we need to do by trading. "If you're asking what we'd probably do in the Winter Meetings, I would say it's more likely that we'd trade for a pitcher than sign one. We could come home with a pitcher. But I don't feel like I have to. I don't feel like I have to go to the podium to make an announcement just because we're at the Winter Meetings.
"With the New York Mets, you're at the podium a lot because we're always trying to get better."You never know at the Winter Meetings. They are teams that I might have been talking to for three or four months. And we just get it done now. Things can come together at the Winter Meetings. So a lot can happen. But if we come home without making a trade, I'm comfortable with what we have. If we went into the season with this staff and our offense, we'd still be a competitive team." People familiar with the Mets' thinking say the club is not inclined -- for now -- to take on long-term contracts for pitchers. That posture and Glavine's return could eliminate the Mets from the pursuit of free agent Barry Zito, who was on the tongues of most call-in fans and drive-time alarmists. His price tag was on the minds of the Mets' treasurer. The club has identified Zito as the best available free-agent talent and believes changing leagues will benefit him. It likes his mechanics, too. Dontrelle Willis is atop the club's trade wish list, but Willis is set in stone atop the Marlins' rotation. Mended Mark Mulder -- who underwent left rotator cuff surgery performed by Mets doctor David Altchek on Sept. 12 -- is in Minaya's outside-the-box, free-agent thinking. And the general manager has been enamored with White Sox starters Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras for some time. Free agents such as Ted Lilly, Jeff Suppan and Gil Meche are in their "what-if" thoughts. Mulder might not address an immediate need. The others certainly would. Whether trading is the means to improvement is a question, because the Mets don't have many excesses. Willis might be the one player they would pursue in trade with a degree of "whatever it takes." Lastings Milledge plus? The departure of Chad Bradford and the uncertainty involving Duaner Sanchez -- who is recovering from shoulder surgery and has just resumed throwing -- and unsigned and suspended free agent Guillermo Mota make dealing Aaron Heilman more than unlikely. It's never been likely anyway. Minaya had addressed the Mets' position player needs by re-signing Jose Valentin to play some second base and some left field and by signing Moises Alou to protect David Wright in the batting order and handle most of the left-field assignments. The general manager expects his lineup to produce at a rate comparable to what it established during its run to the franchise's first division championship in 18 years. What he can't anticipate from the current set of potential starters is a level of success comparable to that achieved by Glavine and Trachsel. Together, the two started 62 games, and the Mets won 71 percent of them. Their record in Glavine's starts (24-8) was the best in the National League among pitchers making at least 25 starts; their record in Trachsel's starts (20-10) was second best. The team's composite 44-18 record in their starts was unmatched in the big leagues. Of course, the Mets' offense, the third-most productive in the league, played a role in those figures, particularly Trachsel's. But the same offense (or a reasonable facsimile) was on the field when 11 other pitchers started the other 100 games, and the Mets won merely 53 percent of those. At this point, seven of the 11 are in the mix -- Maine is the most likely, joining Perez, Williams, Brian Bannister, Mike Pelfrey, Alay Soler and Philip Humber, the Mets' first draft choice in 2004 who started no games last season. Jason Vargas, the 23-year-old left-hander acquired from the Marlins last month, is a candidate as well. The seven incumbents started 45 games and won merely 16 times. The team won 26 of the 45 games. Compare that with the 20 team victories in 30 starts by Trachsel. The Marlins' record in Vargas' starts was 2-3. So Minaya is searching.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.