PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - As non-roster invitees go, the Mets have a good one in Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, who shows up periodically at the team's spring training facility to chat with the pitching staff.

Koufax did so again Monday - a full three days before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report - but there apparently was no truth to the rumor that Omar Minaya is trying to coax his signature on a contract.

Then again, the Mets didn't have much luck this offseason with any of the free-agent starters on the market, two of whom seemed more than willing to sign with them: Staten Island's Jason Marquis and Joel Piñeiro.

The Mets insist it wasn't about the money - they didn't see much value in the crop of available pitchers this winter - and prefer to cite their belief in the returning members of the rotation.

That's fine when it comes to Johan Santana. But beyond the two-time Cy Young winner, the next three candidates - Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine - all come back as significant question marks.

Until those three show progress in spring training, it's almost a pointless exercise to debate who deserves the fifth spot among the likes of Fernando Nieve, Jon Niese, Hisanori Takahashi, Josh Fogg, Pat Misch and Nelson Figueroa.

The Mets are thrilled with what they've witnessed from Perez in his rehab from September's knee surgery, and Minaya was pleased to see Pelfrey and Maine in camp .

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Pelfrey, 26, was the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft; his contract runs out after 2010 but he will remain under the Mets' control, so there's no doubt he's already had a heart-to-heart chat with agent Scott Boras about the importance of this season. As for Maine, after the last two years, he's in danger of being tagged with the label of being injury-prone, making this a crucial season for him, too.

"They're in the prime of their careers," Minaya said. "The bottom line for them is to be healthy. It's not like they haven't pitched well before. I believe in those guys."

Technically, it's been a while. Perez and Maine, both 28, have 15-win seasons, but both did it in 2007. Pelfrey is 23-23 with a 4.35 ERA in his last two seasons. Minaya is right in one respect - there have been flashes of greatness. But how long can the Mets keep waiting for him to sustain his success for more than a week at a time? It's a puzzle they need to solve during the next six weeks.

"We got criticized for not grabbing so-and-so," manager Jerry Manuel said. "But if our guys hit their stride - like we have seen - there's not many staffs that can be potentially as good as what they can be."

That thinking is exactly what got the Mets in trouble last year. Santana was a little iffy coming off knee surgery that snowballed into elbow issues, but the Mets had faith in the trio of Pelfrey, Maine and Perez. Even after last season's meltdown, they still do.

"I thought when we got into spring training last year that we had a chance to be one of the top two or three pitching staffs not only in the National League but in baseball," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "That's because I have that much confidence in Ollie and Maine and Pelfrey."

Notes & quotes: Just because Daniel Murphy is working with Keith Hernandez doesn't mean he's going to be the Opening Day first baseman. Minaya repeated Monday that Murphy will be competing with Mike Jacobs for the job during spring training. "It's not like Murphy has been given the position," Minaya said. "Like any young player, he's got to earn it." . . . Takahashi was one of the many early arrivals who participated in yesterday's workout, and Minaya is looking at him as a candidate for the fifth starter's job.