Hot Stove: Benson on the block

Discussions between the Mets and Baltimore Orioles regarding a possible trade of right-hander Kris Benson have cooled, reports indicate.

The New York Post first reported Thursday that the Mets were interested in dealing Benson, 31, and that a trade with Baltimore could occur as soon as next week's Winter Meetings in Dallas, Tex.

The Mets' trade target was said to be right-handed reliever Jorge Julio, who was 3-5 with a 5.90 ERA in 67 appearances for the Orioles in 2005.

After closing for the last three years, Julio was moved to a setup role behind B.J. Ryan and had mixed results, allowing 76 hits in 71.2 innings while walking 24 and striking out 58.

Benson signed a three-year, $22.5 million extension with New York before last season, finishing the year 10-8 with a 4.13 ERA in 28 starts.

The Mets have six legitimate starting pitching candidates to open the season, with Benson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Jae Seo, Aaron Heilman and Steve Trachsel all returning big leaguers to the mix.

Javier Vazquez and Barry Zito are also considered possibilities to further add to that selection.

The Post reported Friday that the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals are also interested in Benson, who came to the Mets in a July 2004 trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Mets may be prepared to play a waiting game with each of the two catchers they have offered contracts to. Neither Ramon Hernandez nor Bengie Molina have shown any great urgency in responding to the club's initial contract offer, probably because neither deal was especially overwhelming to the respective camps.

In fact, the Mets may wind up bypassing both Hernandez and Molina, pursuing their next backstop via trade. The team has been linked to discussions with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Toby Hall and with the Florida Marlins for Paul Lo Duca.

Meanwhile, returning backup Ramon Castro proved himself capable and a hit with the Mets' pitching staff. He could be considered to start as many as half the club's games in 2006.

The Mets are heavily considering investing in injured right-hander Octavio Dotel, the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger reported Friday.

Dotel, who underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in June, told the El Caribe newspaper in the Dominican Republic that the Mets are one of five teams who have shown an interest in him, even though he will be unable to pitch until at least midseason.

Dotel, 32, was 1-2 with seven saves and a 3.52 ERA for the Oakland A's in 2005. He originally came up with the Mets as a starting pitcher in 1999 before being traded to the Houston Astros in the Mike Hampton deal.

"As of now, [Kaz] Matsui is our second baseman," Mets GM Omar Minaya said last week.

That may be the case, but it doesn't mean the Mets aren't trying to upgrade. Various reports have pointed to free agents Mark Grudzielanek and Tony Graffanino as possible replacements for Matsui, who has one year remaining on the deal he signed with New York before the 2003 season.

Another possibility is Julio Lugo of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, although he would most likely be obtained in a package trade for the aforementioned catcher Hall, and free agent D'Angelo Jimenez.

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