LAS VEGAS - Desperate for a closer, the New York Mets landed the top one available: Francisco Rodriguez.

Now, they have to figure out how to hand him the lead.

Coming off a record-setting season, Rodriguez, 26, reached a preliminary agreement yesterday with the Mets on a $37 million, three-year contract.

The sides still have to work out a written agreement and the pitcher must pass a physical. The contract probably will not be finalized until next week.

"Tired today," general manager Omar Minaya said, although he wouldn't confirm the deal for K-Rod. "We have a lot of stuff going on."

Rodriguez saved 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels this year, five more than the previous big-league mark set by Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox in 1990.

In free agency, Rodriguez's agent, Paul Kinzer, had hoped to get a five-year contract, possibly equaling the $15 million average salary Mariano Rivera is earning from the New York Yankees.

But with baseball executives worried about the national economy, Kinzer accepted a more modest deal. The Mets were one of the few big-market teams looking for an elite closer.

All-star Billy Wagner is expected to miss all of next season after ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow.

"The way that we lost so many close games late, I think that was critical for us to - theoretically - address this thing here. We have addressed it very well," manager Jerry Manuel said, laughing. "I mean, they say the word on the street is good. It's good. That's just the word on the street. We've got to get it written down."

K-Rod could fit in with New York in another way, too. Some take exception to his antics on the mound, and the Mets have drawn the ire of opposing teams for their boisterous celebrations.

"A very confident young man. He's an exciting guy to talk about," Manuel said. "Any time you acquire a person at that level, it raises the level of everybody else. It's almost the same as saying Johan [Santana] is pitching. You see a different spirit with your team. To have a guy, a guy of that sort at the end of a ball game, is very important, very critical for us. Or for anybody."

"He's a competitor. That's why he's one of the guys that we've been looking at," Minaya said.

With the agreement, the Mets are ceasing negotiations with Brian Fuentes and career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, two other free-agent closers.