If yesterday's seven strong innings against the Yankees are any indication, the Angels' Joel Piñeiro would be an upgrade over anyone in the Mets' rotation other than Johan Santana.

So why didn't the Mets sign him when they had the chance?

Piñeiro seemed to wonder that after his gem in the Angels' 5-3 win at Yankee Stadium. He said he considered the Mets the "front-runner" going into the free-agent season, but he couldn't wait forever and signed with the Angels in mid-January.

Asked if he wanted to be a Met, Piñeiro said: "I was looking forward to it . . . I thought they were the one team before anything happened that had the advantage or were the front-runner . . . It was getting down to mid-January and I was like, 'My family wants to know where we're going to set up.' "

Piñeiro said he was in contact with the Mets' Alex Cora, a neighbor in Miami. But apparently not even Cora, who has the ear of general manager Omar Minaya, could get the team to move.

"I guess it's a business decision or just baseball," Piñeiro said. "They had their guys already or it's just a matter of the right fit here in Anaheim."

The Mets did not sign any of the top free-agent pitchers who were on the market. Piñeiro is at least the second who had the Mets No. 1 on his list; Staten Island's Jason Marquis practically begged the Mets to sign him before going to Washington.

Marquis is off to a slow start with the Nationals, but Piñeiro, 31, looked pretty good against the Yankees, allowing one run in seven innings. Think the Mets could use some of that?

"I never said I don't want to go to New York," Piñeiro said. "I just wanted to be one of the starters. I didn't care if it was No. 1 or No. 5. I knew if I go out there I'm going to help that team . . . "

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