With Sheets, Garland gone, Mets focus on Smoltz

John Smoltz throwing during a game against the John Smoltz throwing during a game against the Chicago Cubs. Smoltz will turn 43 in May. (September 18, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - At about 11 Tuesday morning, fresh after seeing his two highest-paid starting pitchers throw off a mound, Omar Minaya smiled and said he wasn't done retooling his rotation.

"We're looking, still," the Mets general manager said. "We're kind of looking at some of the guys on the free-agent market."

By the end of business Tuesday, the top two remaining starters had signed elsewhere. With Ben Sheets and Jon Garland off the market, the Mets' main focus appears to be longtime rival John Smoltz to join Johan Santana and Oliver Perez (the two who threw Tuesday), Mike Pelfrey and John Maine.

Sheets, who sat out 2009 after right elbow surgery, signed a one-year, $10-million deal with the A's, with another $2 million in performance incentives. Garland, a reliable innings-eater and back-of-the-rotation righthander, agreed to terms with San Diego on a one-year, $5.3-million deal.

The Mets, aware of the going rates for Sheets and Garland, never made an official offer to either pitcher.

Smoltz, who will turn 43 in May, had a turbulent 2009 season, being released by the Red Sox after posting an 8.32 ERA in 40 innings, then rebounding somewhat with St. Louis. Smoltz struck out 73 and walked 18 in 78 innings, a very encouraging ratio.

The former Brave has passed on New York repeatedly; the Yankees have made several runs at him, even earlier this offseason. Yet he may not have many other options. Smoltz would like to return to the Cardinals, according to a person in the loop, but they haven't expressed strong interest.

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Lefthander Jarrod Washburn interests the Mets, who also have held conversations with former Yankee Chien-Ming Wang. Wang, recovering from right shoulder surgery, won't be ready for major-league action until May at the earliest.

Among the pitchers on his team, Minaya said, Fernando Nieve probably would be the fifth starter, ahead of Nelson Figueroa and Jonathon Niese. The Mets want to take Niese forward slowly as he rehabilitates from a severe right hamstring injury.

Minaya said he still had some interest in re-signing Carlos Delgado, although Delgado's time in the Puerto Rican Winter League has ended. His team, Carolina, was eliminated from the playoffs. Although the rules allow the finalists to select players from the losing teams, Delgado's agent David Sloane confirmed that neither Caguas nor Mayaguez chose Delgado.

He barely played the field in Puerto Rico, and it appears unlikely that the Mets will commit significant dollars for him to play first base. They're still speaking with free agent Fernando Tatis.

Perez, coming back from right knee surgery, looked to be ahead of Santana, which was understandable given that Santana underwent left elbow surgery. "I feel very strong," Perez said. "I wasn't even thinking about my knee. I was thinking about my mechanics and location."

"The big thing with Ollie is, he has to throw strikes," Jerry Manuel said. " . . . He can get away with some things with the arm strength. But there's got to be more control than, necessarily, command . . . If he's free and easy, he can get away with just control. And hopefully the command will come a little later."

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