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LOOPER MAY YET RETURN

According to the Bergen Record, the Mets may look to bring back Braden Looper, at a reduced salary and not as a closer, of course.

Billy Wagner might be the first choice. B.J. Ryan? Trevor Hoffman? Tom Gordon? All on the wish list.

But the Mets also have to face the reality that the dream closer - even with their big-market budget - might not arrive at Shea Stadium. Wagner might stay in Philadelphia. Hoffman is a long shot to depart San Diego. And the few reliable relief arms on the market might be harder to land than they are to hit.

So the Mets must aim low while looking high. If they don't push Looper away, they can resign him at a lower price than the $5.5 million option and fit him somewhere in the pen - preferably setting up for a more consistent closer. Roberto Hernandez, who was better than expected in a setup role last year, remains on the radar, too, with the Mets holding the lone rights to negotiate with him for another eight days.

If Looper can pitch anything like he did in 2004 -- which I think he can -- bringing him back as a 7th inning guy would be okay with me. Considering the way Hernandez pitched last season, the Mets will definitely try to bring him back for 2006. If they do, we can only hope that Willie finds a way to not use him in five consecutive games like he did in 2005.