Jerry Manuel's moves in Sunday's game provided Ken Davidoff with...

Jerry Manuel's moves in Sunday's game provided Ken Davidoff with a rare oportunity to praise the Mets' manager. Credit: Christopher Pasatieri, file

SAN FRANCISCO - So now that R.A. Dickey is the second coming of Phil Niekro and Jonathon Niese is shaping up as a younger version of Cliff Lee, what are the Mets' most pressing needs as they approach the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline?

Well, pitching, obviously. The Mets still are seeking a rotation alternative for Hisanori Takahashi, whom they see as a much better fit in the bullpen.

Jerry Manuel reiterated his desire to have another lefthander in the bullpen as he discussed the topic before last night's game against the Giants, and that could hinge on Omar Minaya's luck in the starter's market.

Losing out on Lee was disappointing but hardly a surprise to the Mets, who turned down the Mariners' requests for either Niese or Ike Davis as the main part of a trade package, according to a person familiar with those talks.

The Mets view Niese as untouchable, and he polished that label Friday by allowing one run in seven innings in a 1-0 loss to the Giants. Lefthanded and cheap, with a high ceiling, he's the player most asked about for more established pitchers.

"You've got to expect there's going to be another little bump for him because he's a young pitcher," Manuel said. "But also there is an opportunity for him to take what we've seen to another level. Right now, he is a very confident pitcher. He has tremendous rhythm, there's a good pace to his game and they make plays behind him. He's doing well."

The spot to upgrade is Takahashi, who entered last night with a 4-2 record and 4.96 ERA in nine starts. After a scoreless first inning, he allowed five runs in the second, including a three-run homer by Andres Torres.

Takahashi has limited opponents to a .205 batting average the first time through the lineup, but it jumps to .343 the second and skyrockets to .404 the third.

In an effort to replace Takahashi, the Mets have interest in the Cubs' Ted Lilly, and a person familiar with the situation confirmed that the Astros' Brett Myers also is a target. But Minaya hasn't pulled the trigger because the prices remain too high.

That pretty much eliminates the Astros' Roy Oswalt and the Diamondbacks' Dan Haren from consideration; either of those pitchers would command a hefty price in prospects. Oswalt is due a guaranteed $40 million through 2011 and Haren has about $33 million left until his deal expires after 2012.

But Manuel isn't concerned about the financial component of improving his rotation. He's in the final year of his own contract, and the manager believes the rotation could use a boost.

"Obviously, if you see something out there better, then I don't think there's anything wrong with upgrading," Manuel said. "Because we have to evaluate from what we have seen [already from the staff], not wait and say let's see what happens."

In other words, the Mets know what they have by now. That's a rejuvenated Johan Santana, a suddenly troubling No. 2 in Mike Pelfrey and the two surprises of the season in Niese and Dickey. In Takahashi, they are using a relief pitcher masquerading as a starter, and short of a stunning rebound this week, he is likely to be bumped by a trade.

Just how big a trade - and for what - is the question.

"It really depends on the quality of a starter," Manuel said. "If you're talking about a guy that's a legitimate No. 1 or 2, then you've got to take the starter. If you're talking about a guy that's an innings guy or something like that, I don't know if that makes us better just to have innings guys."

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