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Mets land Matthews to bolster outfield

Mets land Matthews to bolster outfield

NEW YORK -- Needing to fill a temporary hole, the Mets have instead found a two-year solution. Rather than wait passively for Carlos Beltran to mend from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Mets on Friday acquired former All-Star outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. and cash from the Angels in exchange for reliever Brian Stokes.

Matthews, 35, hit .250 with four home runs in 316 at-bats last season, his role reduced to that of a fourth outfielder. He played briefly for the Mets in 2002 before a trade sent him to the Orioles, and he hit .313 with 19 homers in his career year of 2006 in Texas.

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"He's a very versatile player," general manager Omar Minaya said on a conference call Friday afternoon. "I felt just that with Carlos being out, it's an opportunity to get a guy that's versatile, and a guy that in our ballpark can play all outfield positions. I just feel that versatility is important, and to be able to get a guy like him on board -- with Carlos or without Carlos -- I think it just makes our team better."

In addition to paying off a $500,000 obligation for trading Matthews, the Angels will pick up $21.5 million of the $23.5 million remaining on his contract, according to SI.com, which first reported the deal. In exchange, they will receive Stokes, 30, a right-handed reliever and Southern California native who was to compete for a setup role in the Mets' bullpen.

Matthews has underperformed since signing a five-year, $50 million contract with the Angels after the 2006 season. Relegated to a part-time role in Los Angeles, Matthews hit .248 with a total of 26 homers and 168 RBIs over the first three years of his contract.

His ultimate zone rating, a defensive metric used to determine how many runs a player either saves or gives away in the field, fell steadily from 15.5 in 2005 to -14.5 in '09.

After the season, Matthews made public his desire for a trade, and the Angels have worked to honor that request, despite the difficulties in moving such a bulky contract. During the Winter Meetings in December, the Mets reportedly came close to completing a four-team deal that would have, among other things, shipped Luis Castillo to the Cubs and brought Matthews to Flushing.

That deal fell through, though, and the process of trading Matthews became laborious -- in part because of his partial no-trade clause, but mostly because of the two years and $23 million remaining on his contract. The Angels, seeing no other way to move him, finally agreed to eat more than 90 percent of his remaining salary in a deal with the Mets.

Matthews wanted to be traded to a team that would allow him to start, and the Mets, at least temporarily, can offer him that assurance. But if all goes to plan, Beltran will be back on the field in May. With Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur entrenched in left and right field, respectively, Matthews will be relegated back to the bench -- as he was with the Angels.

Still, Matthews should find plenty of at-bats as a fourth outfielder.

"There's an opportunity for him to come into New York and hopefully be able to get more playing time," Minaya said. "I think the key for him is going to be playing time."

His presence should also keep 22-year-old outfield prospect Fernando Martinez confined to Triple-A for most of this season, which may not have happened if not for a contentious sequence of events last week.

The Mets announced late last Wednesday night that Beltran had undergone arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage fragments, inflammation and bone spurs in his right knee. A day later, the team held a conference call, during which assistant general manager John Ricco revealed that Beltran had undergone the surgery without the club's knowledge or approval.

In the ensuing days, Minaya and Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, traded barbs regarding the operation and the team's reaction to it.

Regardless, the surgery did occur, and the Mets do not expect Beltran to begin baseball activities until the first week of April, nor to rejoin the lineup for another four to six weeks after that. Though Minaya would not set a target date, mid-May appears to be Beltran's best-case scenario.

"A lot of it is going to depend on how he recuperates," Minaya said. "I don't want to put a specific time on when he'll be back."

In his absence, Angel Pagan -- who filled in admirably for Beltran last season -- was to start in center. Pagan filed for salary arbitration this week, and the Mets are committed to paying him at least the $1.275 million they offered. It remains possible, though unlikely, that Pagan could start over Matthews while Beltran recuperates.

"I think it's going to be open competition," Minaya said of the center-field job. "That's the same thing that I told Gary Matthews Jr. when he asked that. Nobody's going to be given a job. Whoever performs is going to be given the opportunity."

The Mets, with less than four weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report, are now beginning to take solid shape. Though they recently lost out on two of their primary free-agent targets, catcher Bengie Molina and starting pitcher Joel Pineiro, Minaya said those near-misses have not deterred him.

Specifically, Minaya said he will continue to explore pitching options on the free-agent market. In recent days, the Mets have been linked to Ben Sheets, John Smoltz and Chien-Ming Wang.

"You always wish that when you make offers, you get the players," Minaya said in response to Molina and Pineiro. "We would have liked to have gotten at least one of those guys. We have to continue to look at the market, look at the guys that are available and try to fill in those areas of need."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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