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Signing pitcher will improve Mets' worthiness

Omar Minaya was the Mets' general manager from

Omar Minaya was the Mets' general manager from Sept. 30, 2004 until Oct. 4, 2010. Credit: Newsday

'Pretty much every team within five games of the playoffs" has called the Mariners about Cliff Lee, a person familiar with the situation said Wednesday on the condition of anonymity.

Taken literally, that's 17 contending clubs, and you can count our Mets and Yankees as absolutely having kept tabs on the best available pitcher.

But the Mets have a special burden among those 17, it seems. They must prove, still, to their skeptical fan base that they're not financially strapped.

Whether it's Lee, Ted Lilly, Roy Oswalt or some unforeseen player, such an acquisition would serve dual positive purposes for the Mets:

1. It would improve the Mets' chances of making the playoffs.

2. It would drive the Mets further away from Bernie Madoff.

Two of the contenders, the Rangers and Dodgers, are undeniably strapped, with paperwork to back it up. The Rangers find themselves tied up in bankruptcy court until they change owners, while the Dodgers' owners Frank and Jamie McCourt continue their grisly divorce proceedings and battle for control of the team.

The Mets, however? We just don't know.

Yes, we learned that they took a hit from Madoff, but only the Wilpons understand just how bad the damage truly was, vis-à-vis their overall assets. And as much as it sometimes seems that the Mets have skimped since the December 2008 Madoff revelation, the evidence is more gray.

They cut their payroll by roughly $15 million over the offseason. Yet they've countered some of that already by selecting Matt Harvey, a Scott Boras client who will not sign cheap, in last month's amateur draft. And now they're looking to spend a few more million on an upgrade in their starting rotation, essentially writing off the rehabilitating Oliver Perez as a sunk cost.

If the Mets don't make a trade this month because they can't afford to do so? Then Omar Minaya is wasting not only his own time right now, but also that of many opposing teams' officials.

Minaya and his staff are operating under the belief that they can add payroll. That doesn't mean that Oswalt, owed some $25 million, is coming in return for the top prospects the Astros want. We'd rip such a trade, as it wouldn't make baseball sense.

Lilly and his $6 million, however? Doable. The Cubs are starting to get serious about dealing the former Yankees lefthander, and Lilly is going to be less in demand than Lee. The Mets like Lilly's flyball tendencies and his New York experience. This could definitely work, even though a look at Lilly's peripheral statistics show that he has benefited from luck this season.

Lee? Mariners people insist that, if they can't top the underwhelming package that Philadelphia got from Seattle last winter, then there will be no deal.

A one-year payroll cut, considering all of the other factors in play, shouldn't set off any alarms. But of course, these are the Mets we're talking about. Their fans aren't in a very forgiving mood after the Collapses of 2007 and 2008 and last year's debacle.

To their credit, the Mets are utilizing outreach programs like the free tickets for former season-ticket holders. And they drafted Harvey. And, you know, they're playing very good baseball, last night's 3-1 home loss to Cincinnati notwithstanding.

The next step comes between now and July 31. With a better pitcher will come a better pitch. "We believe in comebacks," this team's slogan, would carry even greater weight with a shiny, new addition to the starting rotation.

New York Sports