Mets step forward as most likely suitor

Carlos Beltran's agent was trying to finalize a
contract with the New York Mets early Sunday after letting the
deadline for the speedy center fielder to re-sign with the Houston Astros pass without an agreement.

Newsday reported on its Web site the Mets and Beltran are "only four or five million dollars apart." Reports indicate the Mets deal could be worth between $112 million to $120 million.

Scott Boras, Beltran's agent, was hoping the Yankees would get into the mix, but Newsday reported the team declined to meet Beltran's price. Yankees president Randy Levine told Boras on Saturday the Yankees were not ready to go to $16 million per year, or $112 million total.

The Mets, who haven't made the playoffs since 2000, were trying
to pull off a coup for the second time this offseason. They lured
three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez from the Boston Red
Sox last month with a $53 million, four-year deal.

Both the Mets and the Astros spoke throughout Saturday with
Boras. Houston had to sign him by midnight
or lose rights until May 1 under baseball rules because he finished
the season with the Astros, became a free agent and rejected the
team's offer of salary arbitration. The Mets and other teams did
not have that restriction.

Just after the deadline passed, Boras said he was still
negotiating with New York, and the sides kept on talking after the
deadline passed, trying to put an agreement in writing.

Houston was disappointed it couldn't keep Beltran, who led the
Astros within one win of their first World Series appearance.

"Scott called us to let us know they were going to go in a
different direction," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. "I don't know if shaken is
the right word, certainly disappointed."

There was no immediate comment from the Mets.

Beltran and Boras made the Astros sweat this one
out. Purpura had said that Houston made
its final offer to Beltran on Thursday. He declined to discuss the
amount of Houston's proposal.

The Mets dispatched a delegation to Puerto Rico to meet with Beltran and
Boras on Monday. Over the past few months, the Yankees,
Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers also were thought to be pursuing

Regardless, the courtship of Beltran will be a bittersweet
memory for the Astros.

He came to Houston in a midseason trade from Kansas City, with
the Astros hoping he'd provide a spark for a team that was clearly
underachieving. Beltran did his part, but the Astros continued to
stumble well into the summer, raising speculation that he'd be
traded again.

Houston kept him and was glad it did. He was a big reason the
Astros finished 36-10 and made the playoffs.

Beltran then sent his price soaring during a remarkable
postseason run with the Astros, batting .417 in the NL Championship
Series with four home runs, five RBI and four steals. He also hit
.455 with four homers and nine RBI in the first round.

Since the Astros' season ended in Game 7 of the NLCS in St.
Louis, Houston officials had little contact with Beltran.

During negotiations, Purpura said the Astros only talked with
Beltran once. That was during a Dec. 22 meeting at the team's
spring training camp in Kissimmee, Fla.

And as the deadline approached Saturday, Purpura said the Astros
and Boras didn't really discuss specifics of the offer until late
in the afternoon.

"The serious parts of this only happened in the last six
hours," Purpura said. "Really, I think we ran out of time.
Mostly, it's time and distance. Certainly I regret the fact that we
didn't deal with some of these things earlier -- but we didn't
control the pace of the negotiations."

Without Beltran and the loss of All-Star second baseman Jeff
Kent to the Dodgers, the Astros will have a hard time persuading
Roger Clemens not to retire. But Astros owner Drayton McLane said last night he believes Beltran's departure doesn't ensure Clemens' exit.

"I certainly hope not and I don't think so," McLane told The New York Post. "Roger said that we would get together. He's been in Hawaii and he's coming home this weekend. I feel very confident that we'll be able to reach an agreement with Roger.

"We'll move on to Roger next week."

Clemens, 42, has said he would make a decision in January
whether to retire or play. The Rocket intended to quit after the
2003 season, then changed his mind and signed with his hometown
team, winning the Cy Young Award for a record seventh time.

"Certainly we will welcome Roger back," Purpura said. "We're
not going to shift into a rebuilding mode because of this."

Purpura said the candidates to replace Beltran in center will
most likely be Jason Lane, minor-league prospect Willy Taveras or
Craig Biggio, who held the position before Beltran joined the team.
He also said Houston had not ruled out a trade to upgrade the spot.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.