VIERA, Fla. - For $100,000, the Mets have bought themselves extra time to decide on their fifth starter.

In an unusual move, the Mets agreed Tuesday to give Daisuke Matsuzaka a $100,000 retention bonus, allowing the team to send the righthander to the minor leagues. But he may still make the Opening Day roster because the Mets have not officially named a fifth starter.

So, for now, righthander Jenrry Mejia maintains a chance to win the job from Matsuzaka. Both are scheduled to pitch when the Mets face the Blue Jays in a pair of exhibition games in Montreal on Friday and Saturday.

To general manager Sandy Alderson, the competition remains open.

"We want to take the right guy,'' Alderson said. "Not the guy who's pitching the best at the moment, but the guy who gives us the best chance to win 90 games.''

Matsuzaka, 33, had been seen by some as the clear front-runner. But Mejia, 24, has opened eyes this spring training and has made a serious bid for the spot.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Because of Matsuzaka's veteran status, the Mets were required Tuesday to release him, pay him the bonus or guarantee him an Opening Day roster spot. The Mets appeared ready to do the latter, as teams typically make such decisions ahead of Tuesday's deadline.

Instead, the Mets threw a curveball.

"We're fairly close to a decision,'' manager Terry Collins said, though the Mets weren't close enough to make the call Tuesday.

Aside from buying extra time to decide between the two starters, delaying the decision on Matsuzaka would guard the Mets against any setbacks that Jonathon Niese may experience. The lefthander is working his way back from elbow inflammation. Although he'll retroactively be placed on the disabled list to begin the season, he's expected to be ready to start when he's eligible to come off April 6.

If not, Collins said that Matsuzaka or Mejia would take the assignment.

But the outlook for Niese is only one factor in the decision, with team insiders insisting that the organization is torn between the two candidates. Matsuzaka posted a 3.86 ERA in five spring training outings, while Mejia owns a 2.89 ERA in three games. Although Matsuzaka has more experience, Mejia possesses more upside.

"I don't want to set up the expectation so that somebody throws a shutout and the other one doesn't, then suddenly he's won the competition,'' said Alderson, who declined to say which pitcher may hold an edge.

Only one element of the Mets' decision appears straightforward. After bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, the Mets view Mejia strictly as a starter. But it's unclear whether that will be in New York or Triple-A Las Vegas.