If the Mets plan to move Mike Piazza to first base next spring, they could have a 275-pound obstacle in their way: Mo Vaughn.
Vaughn's agent, Jeff Moorad, last night told The Post it was nearly certain Vaughn will be in Port St. Lucie in mid-February, attempting to stave off retirement despite his arthritic left knee.
"I can't imagine that he won't go to spring training," Moorad said. "Certainly my advice to him would be to go to spring training. Certainly I assume the club will expect him at spring training."
Calls to Vaughn and Mets GM Jim Duquette were not returned last night. Vaughn's father, Leroy, said earlier this week that no decision was imminent and his son might not decide until New Year's.
Vaughn's return would be a nightmare for the Mets. The issue of Piazza moving to first already was looming large, and it is believed the Mets were counting on collecting the insurance on Vaughn's $15 million salary next season. The policy covers 75 percent, which would be an $11.25 million windfall if Vaughn doesn't play.
In baseball circles, it was widely assumed Vaughn was unofficially retired, although none of the key parties would admit it because the insurance would then be null and void. That still could be the situation, except Moorad painted a rosier picture.
"He told me as long as he was consistent with his workouts, the pain was under control," said Moorad, who spoke with Vaughn about 10 days ago. "If he slacked off those workouts, he had to endure major pain."
Vaughn did not play after May 2 because of a degenerative injury that has left bone on bone in his knee. He hit .190 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 2003.
Mets pitcher Tom Glavine told The Post yesterday, "It would have to be a bit surprising [to see him at spring training].
"I don't know if I'd be shocked," Glavine said. "You try to give it every ounce you can when you might have to tell yourself your career is over.
"I don't expect to [see him at spring training], after what he went through last year. He saw a litany of doctors, and it sounds like nobody was telling him what he wanted to hear."
Mets catcher Vance Wilson said, "I wouldn't be surprised, only because he holds himself accountable."
Rumblings of Vaughn's baseball exit are greatly exaggerated, Moorad said.
"Absolutely. It's too early to conclude anything," Moorad said, "but Mo will do his part and report as required."
Dan Horwits, one of Mike Piazza's agents, confirmed the Mets and Piazza are on the same page as far as the catcher's status.
"I know both Danny [Lozano, Piazza's primary agent] and Mike have talked to the Mets," Horwits said. "Everything that was discussed [in the papers] is untrue."
Piazza and Lozano are expected to talk again with the Mets soon.
Horwits, who is Keith Foulke's agent, also disputed the rumblings that Oakland's free-agent closer doesn't want to leave the West Coast.
"Not true at all," said Horwits, who had another conversation with Duquette about Foulke the other day. "I've also seen that we're close to signing with Oakland. Not true at all."
It's hard to believe that he will be in any kind of physical condition to play. The way he looked his last few games of last season, pitiful.
This would really gum things up for the Mets if he plays at all. They lose out on the insurance $$$, and he clogs first and prevents a kid from making the roster, and forces Piazza to remain behind the plate.