The Mets do plan to meet with Zito and his agent, Scott Boras, in the near future but not before Boras is done re-populating the Red Sox. A person familiar with the Mets' plans and thinking said as much Thursday, but he was unsure where the face-to-face courtship would happen.
"The Mets are aware of how good a pitcher Barry Zito is and how much he could help," the source said. But he added they also know how much they want to spend and that they are expected "to stick with it" even with their apparent need for a proven starting pitcher and the staggering escalation in the average annual value of new contracts for pitchers.
Another source from outside the organization said last week it was his understanding, from speaking with Mets personnel, that the club offered Zito a five-year, $70 million contract. But Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said on Thursday no offer had been made and only general parameters were discussed.
Five years and $70 million are the terms that were widely speculated for Zito last month when players began filing for free agency. At the time, the Mets appeared opposed to making a five-year commitment to a pitcher and hardly embraced the $70 million figure.
Wilpon did reiterate Thursday the club's interest in Zito but noted that the Mets have "two or three trades involving pitchers we're looking at." He also said it was "highly unlikely" Aaron Heilman would be involved in any trade.
Wilpon made no such exemption with young outfielder Lastings Milledge, saying, "We're not looking to trade him." Others in the organization say the development of younger outfielders Carlos Gomez, 21, and Fernando Martinez, 18, and Milledge's behavior in his first exposure to the big leagues have made him more expendable than he was a year ago. Wilpon disagreed: "Not necessarily," he said.
Milledge's name has been included in a number of speculated trade packages, several involving the A's. The Mets do have interest in two A's pitchers: Joe Blanton and Danny Haren. Their interest in Rich Harden, another A's hurler, has diminished because of his history of injuries.
But Heilman often is the Major League player potential trade partners covet. Mike Pelfrey is the Minor League talent asked about most often. The Mets are not inclined to deal young, talented pitchers who are not arbitration eligible.
Just the same, they do need a starting pitcher, no matter how often general manager Omar Minaya says he's comfortable going forward with what he has. A sense of need exists because the two most-established starters -- Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez -- also have established that their best seasons are in the past. And the most promising of the younger starters -- John Maine, Oliver Perez, Philip Humber, Alay Soler, Jason Vargas and Pelfrey -- have relatively little on their resumes.
Few legitimate contenders begin a season with three starters who, together, would have so little history as any combination of three from among those six.
It's why the Mets still are looking and why their bullpen looms so large. It's going to be worked. The club once had interest in another free agent and former A's pitcher, Mark Mulder. But that too has passed because the Mets now believe Mulder won't recover so quickly or early from Sept. 12 shoulder surgery.
Mark it down on the calendar: Thursday was the first day since June 1987 that Mets vice president Jay Horwitz missed a day of work for reasons of illness. The club's public relations man since April 1980, Horwitz was out of the office on Thursday because of the stomach flu. His absence was as conspicuous as would be Jose Reyes without a smile.
Horwitz had missed work because of the death of his mother, but the last time he missed work for illness was when he was quarantined in the team's Chicago hotel because he had chicken pox.
Wilpon said, "I didn't know what to think," when Horwitz didn't answer his 7:30 a.m. call to the Mets PR office. "We talk that early every day, and he's always there."
And, now, another bombshell. Horwitz was out sick on Friday as well.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.