That’s the question posed (ok, not in those exact words) by the New York Times’ Ben Shpigel who notes the customarily bold Omar Minaya (above) has failed to obtain Daisuke Matzusaka, Kei Igawa, Jeff Suppan, Barry Zito or Freddy Garcia this winter.

With unattractive options remaining on the free-agent market, Minaya will have to take another look at the Mets™ minor league prospects and decide if he is willing to part with any of them for what he termed œan impact pitcher.

That label does not appear to apply to pitchers like the Oakland Athletics™ Danny Haren or the White Sox™s Jon Garland or Javier Vázquez, pitchers who have interested the Mets. All are good, solid pitchers and would fit nicely into the front section of their rotation.

But if the Mets consider dealing Lastings Milledge or, less likely, Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber, Minaya seemed to suggest that they would want someone with a more established pedigree.

œHow many impact guys are out there? Minaya said during a conference call yesterday. œThey don™t just become available. To make trades, we could do things. But who are the impact guys? Those impact guys come around once in a while. But that being said, we™ve always been aggressive and proactive in pursuing those guys.

œWe have a lot of quality prospects. Scouts use the term ˜high ceiling.™ If you have those kinds of premium prospects, those kinds of impact pitchers become available in trades.

I’ll submit that Minaya might very well have an impact pitcher already in his possession. But there’s no sign of any inclination to give Aaron Heilman another try at starting, not with the losses of Chad Bradford and Robert Hernandez (nor Duaner Sanchez’ status still questionable).

In the eyes of Newsday’s Ken Davidoff, Minaya’s inability to sign Zito (“a pitcher who would have cost them only money”) means the Mets have “officially taken a step back.”

Minaya, who should’ve won The Sporting News’ Executive of the Year award for 2006, deserves plenty of leeway, given what he has done in his first two years. But it’s fair to look at the Mets’ current pitching staff, scan the trade and free-agent markets, and wonder how they’re going to work their way back into the playoffs.

With Jeff Suppan off the board, Mets fans should feel better if the club can sign Jeff Weaver, who like Zito gives you innings and is represented by Scott Boras. Weaver is no Zito, however. As for trade options, to get a Brad Penny, Jon Garland or Dan Haren, the Mets would have to take away from the very stash of young pitchers to which they now point as an asset. And it’s not certain the price will drop.

Yes, the Mets won 97 games and made the NLCS last season, even though Pedro Martinez missed so much time. But it can’t be stressed enough how fluky 2006 was for the Mets. When you take a double-digit division lead by June, you can kick back, experiment and not sweat Martinez’s absences. There almost certainly won’t be such a cruise to October this next time around.

In which case you need people to get important outs for six months, not three. Tom Glavine, who turns 41 in March, now becomes the bona fide ace again. He hasn’t faced such expectations since the Art Howe days. Orlando Hernandez’s 162 1/3 innings pitched marked his highest total since 2000. Bank on a regression.

Though Davidoff’s points are well taken, let’s not lose sight of the enormity of what Brian Sabean has done. The Giants GM has elected to proffer the richest pact ever given to a pitcher to a lefty that’s won 20 games or more exactly once in his 7 year big league career.  He’s committed $126 million over 7 years to a pitcher with an ERA of more than 4 runs a game over the last 3 seasons.  I don’t think anyone will argue that Barry Zito is a quality pitcher that warranted a more lucrative deal than Gil Meche or Ted Lilly. But if Zito can command a contract of this size and length, what’s Carlos Zambrano going to be worth on the open market? Johan Santana? Dontrelle Willis?