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No ifs, ands or buts, Mets need Zito now


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Today's history lesson takes us all the way back to 2001 -- to Seattle, the cradle of grunge rock, Starbucks coffee and Microsoft.


In 2001, baseball was hot in Seattle. A-Rod and Griffey were out, Ichiro was in and the sizzling Mariners tied a major-league record by winning 116 regular-season games.


And then?


Well, those Mariners had to struggle to beat Cleveland in the first round. Then they got run out of their own building by the Yankees -- trying to beat Andy Pettitte with Aaron Sele, Roger Clemens with Paul Abbott -- and lost a noncompetitive ALCS in five forget table games. The best regular-season team in the history of the American League had to watch the World Series on television.


Which brings us back to 2006, and the dilemma facing the Mets with the nonwaiver trade deadline three days away.


These Mets would do well to heed the lesson of the 2001 Mariners: A so-so starting rotation might be enough to get you from April to September, but October has a way of making that kind of stuff matter.


So, if what we're hearing is true -- if the Oakland A's really would trade Barry Zito to the Mets for Lastings Milledge -- the Mets should go ahead and do it.


Right now, what Mets GM Omar Minaya is saying is that the price teams are asking for "rental players" is too high. He can't mention specific players, but the hint is clear. Zito, who can be a free agent at the end of the season, is no guarantee to be a Met in 2007 even if they trade for him. To give up a system jewel such as Milledge for a pitcher you may have for only three months is tough, especially two years after the Mets made the brutal trade of Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano.


But there are some major differences between that trade and this one:


First, the Mets really are going to this year's playoffs. In 2004, they were seven games back at the time of the trade and had no real chance. That, in retrospect, makes the surrender of Kazmir for an irretrievable rockhead like Zambrano even worse. But this year, they have a 12-game lead on a bunch of lousy teams. Their magic number is already down to 50. They are in, and they have to be thinking about what their rotation will look like when the first round begins.


Second, Zito is not Zambrano. The Mets believed Zambrano was a project -- a good arm that just needed to be taught how to throw strikes. Zito is a Cy Young winner with postseason experience who yearns to pitch in New York.


Third, and finally, Milledge is an outfielder, not a young, left-handed, flame-throwing starting pitcher. Yes, he looks as if he'll be a good player, you can always go out on the market and get an outfielder. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee -- two of the hottest names on this weekend's trade market -- will be free agents at the end of the season. Milledge would be happy to turn out to be as good as either of those guys already is.


This is the Mets' go-for-it year. This one. You don't get too many seasons in which your lineup clicks from Day One, your middle relief is lights-out, your kids all blossom, you pull a hot-hitting second baseman out of nowhere and the rest of your division falls apart, allowing you two months to rest your fragile ace and set everything up for October. That just doesn't happen every year. For some teams, it doesn't happen any year.


With Zito, the Mets are a cinch to make the World Series. They're not going to run into any three- time defending Series champions in the second round, like the 2001 Mariners did. Their lineup is already five times better than that of any other team in the National League.


Their only concern is whether their starting pitching might be vulnerable enough to give one of their mediocre opponents a chance to play them on even footing in a short series. If all they have to do to ease that concern is give up a Triple-A outfielder, they'd be silly not to do it.


What happens after? Who knows? They're going to have a good chance to sign Zito anyway, even if he doesn't join the team now and enjoy a rollicking recruiting pitch of a run to the World Se ries. And if Milledge turns out to be the next Carlos Beltran, well, good for the A's.


But right now, that's still an "if." The Mets shouldn't be thinking about "ifs." They should be thinking about "when." As in, "when" they're in the playoffs, who's going to pitch Games 1, 2 and 3?


Seems like Pedro Martinez, Barry Zito and Tom Glavine would sound like a pretty good answer.

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