CINCINNATI - The details still need to be worked out. And even Mets general manager Sandy Alderson acknowledged yesterday that it's not entirely clear whether it's possible.

But if righthander Matt Harvey hopes to avoid elbow surgery and pitch for the Mets next season, he must show this winter that he can withstand the stress of game conditions.

"He needs to throw to a near-competitive level, and perhaps on more than one occasion," said Alderson, who left open the chance of sending Harvey to winter leagues such as the Arizona Fall League, where he could test his elbow against higher-level competition.

Harvey has a six- to eight-month window to get through a rehab program for a partial ligament tear in his right elbow. A setback at any point would lead to Tommy John surgery, which would wipe out the pitcher's 2014 season. However, Harvey has insisted on giving rehab a chance.

Since surgery carries a 12-month rehab, the timing of Harvey's injury has opened a window for him to at least make an attempt to avoid surgery. He has yet to begin his throwing program.

Said Alderson: "The strong desire is we will finish this process in a six- to eight-week time frame."

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Meanwhile, Alderson said the timing of Zack Wheeler's shoulder stiffness last week led the Mets to shut him down. The pitcher was examined by a doctor but did not require an MRI.

Wheeler was shut down after logging 168 2/3 innings between the big leagues and Triple-A Las Vegas.

"If this were at any other point in the season, we might back him off, skip a start, something like that," Alderson said. "That's the level of concern that we had. But given the fact that it's the end of the season, it just didn't make any sense to back him off and crank him up one more time."