Mets Meet Japan's Ex-MVP

The New York Mets spent Wednesday trying to bolster one of their biggest strengths while keeping another intact.

Japanese free agent reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki met and worked out for Mets' management in the second stop of a four-city U.S. tour.

Sasaki, the career saves leader in Japan, worked out for the New York Yankees on Tuesday and heads to Arizona and Seattle for meetings later this week. He is expected to make another trip to the United States in December before making a decision where to play next season.

"Negotiations will not take place until after this week and perhaps until after the next trip when he will visit a number of other clubs," said agent Tony Attanasio, who also represents Mets manager Bobby Valentine.

Sasaki and Attanasio met with Mets general manager Steve Phillips and Valentine at Shea Stadium. Sasaki, who had bone chips removed from his right elbow on Aug. 9, also played catch and threw 13 pitches off a mound in the batting cage.

"This was more of a getting to know you experience," said Phillips, who received X-rays of Sasaki's elbow. "We also wanted to see him throw off mound post-surgery. He was not at full velocity but at least we were able to see his arm action compared to what had seen on video and heard from scouts. We feel comfortable that he is well on his way back based on what we saw today."

The bidding for the 32-year-old Sasaki, who made about $5.2 million last year in Japan, should be competitive, and the right-hander could command more than $3 million per season.

The Mets might have an advantage because they already have Japanese pitcher Masato Yoshii and Valentine managed in Japan in 1995.

"I remember him from when managed Chiba Lotte. I respect him and like him a lot," Sasaki said through a translator.

His trip to the United States is big news in baseball-crazed Japan. Reporters from five television stations and 10 newspapers are joining Japan's 1998 MVP on the cross-country tour.

If Sasaki signs with the Mets, he would likely be a setup man instead of a closer. The Mets already have two closers in Armando Benitez and John Franco, who might ask for a trade before next season.

"Role is important to him and his preference is to close," Phillips said. "But his No. 1 priority is to win. These are issues we have to resolve internally as we move forward. We certainly want to have the best bullpen we can."

Meanwhile, the Mets' No. 1 priority remains re-signing free agent first baseman John Olerud>, who met with Seattle on Monday.

Olerud, who hit .297 with 19 homers and 96 RBIs last season, was the Mets No. 3 hitter and part of perhaps the best fielding infield in history.

Money might not be the deciding factor in these negotiations, as Olerud is from the Seattle area and may choose to return home. But until he makes his decision, the Mets are in a holding pattern.

"We have plans B, C, and D lined up," Phillips said. "We are keeping those alive in a way that protects us. Timing is an issue and they understand that. We don't want to get to a point where we have to pursue some alternative plan because they're not ready to make a decision. But it could come to that."

Those other plans include signing David Segui, a free agent who played with Mets in 1994-95, or trading for Toronto's Carlos Delgado, eligible for free agency after next season.

Phillips ruled out speculation that the Mets would move Gold Glove third baseman Robin Ventura to first base and try to sign Adrian Beltre, who might be declared a free agent because the Los Angeles Dodgers allegedly signed him to a contract before his 16th birthday.

Phillips also downplayed talk that catcher Mike Piazza might move to first base to ease the wear and tear on his body.

"If we move Mike to first then we have to find someone who can give us what Olerud gives behind the plate," Phillips said. "We can get closer to John by finding a first baseman than a catcher. It's an option, but it's not one anywhere near happening."

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