From Newsday’s David Lennon (link courtesy Marc Perlman).

The Mets continued their efforts last night to move Kris Benson, discussing a trade with the Royals that would bring a relief pitcher, Jeremy Affeldt or Mike MacDougal, to Flushing. A baseball official with knowledge of the talks described the trade as “imminent” at one point, but another said a deal was not close as of late last night.

The benefit of trading Benson is twofold. The Mets not only would get a chance to upgrade their rotation at the No. 3 spot with a former Cy Young winner in Barry Zito (above), but they would get to clear Benson’s salary off the payroll. He is due $15 million in the next two seasons.

If the deal eventually gets done with the Royals, the Mets will receive a quality arm for their bullpen, which is another area of concern.

When general manager Omar Minaya was asked earlier in the day if the Mets will seek to bolster their rotation, he said, “We would like to add a guy. In our ballpark, we like to have pitching as a priority. If there’s an opportunity to get a front-line guy, you have to explore it.”

Zito would appear to be that guy. He will earn $8.5 million this season in the walk year of his contract, and the cost-conscious Athletics have a habit of trading their most expensive players rather than paying to keep them.

Oakland GM Billy Beane did it with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, but he’s been on the fence with Zito. If the Mets become willing to part with top outfield prospect Lastings Milledge, however, Beane might change his mind in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the Athletics seem to be preparing for life without Zito. Oakland signed Esteban Loaiza to a three-year, $21-million contract before the winter meetings, and the A’s also are interested in trading for David Wells, who would be a logical, if older, replacement for the lefthanded Zito.

Matthew Cerrone writes that a Royals source has confirmed that Benson is headed to K.C. in exchange for Jeremy Affeldt and another pitcher to be determined.