New York Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (34) watches the...

New York Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (34) watches the game action from the dugout after being relieved in the top of the sixth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks. (July 30, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

The Mets made the decision weeks ago to hold on to their top prospects during this trade season, so their inactivity leading up to Saturday's 4 p.m. non-waivers deadline hardly is surprising to anyone privy to their in-house discussions.

That includes manager Jerry Manuel, who politely deflected Friday's round of trade questions upstairs to the front office. He has nothing against developing young players, but what the Mets look like five years from now is not a high priority for a lame-duck manager whose job security no doubt depends on this team making the playoffs.

But Manuel spoke Friday like a man resigned to his fate. Less than 24 hours after the Phillies pulled off a trade for Roy Oswalt - their second midseason deal for an ace in as many years - Manuel suggested that a resurrected Mike Pelfrey could make the Mets' rotation comparable to that of the defending NL champs.

Maybe such rationalizations help Manuel sleep at night. But saying that Pelfrey, Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey match up with Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels is wishful thinking.

It all hinged on Pelfrey, and Manuel was hopeful Friday that his supposed No. 2 starter would return to some semblance of his first-half form. Instead, he threw 40 pitches in the first inning, gave up five runs in 52/3 innings and exited right before the bullpen collapse in the sixth.

"I can tell you that I'm not at the same place as I was earlier in the year," he said. "I heard somebody say that in order for us to get where we need to go, I've got to get back to being the guy I was at the beginning of the year. I've got to get back on the right track and start winning games."

There's a good chance that the Mets will not see that Pelfrey again this season, and if his fade becomes permanent, they probably can say goodbye to meaningful games in September.

The day after the Phillies fortified themselves with the Oswalt deal, Pelfrey looked shaky again, getting scored upon in the first inning for the 10th straight start.

He departed in the sixth with a 5-4 lead before Raul Valdes served up a pair of homers that turned it into a 9-5 deficit that inning. After finally retrieving Valdes, Manuel was booed loudly on his way back to the dugout. But what else could the manager have done? Pelfrey already had thrown 118 pitches by the time Manuel retrieved him - only one fewer than his max this season - and seemed to be nearing the end.

Pelfrey has not made it through six innings since June 25, and that also happens to be the date of his last win. Watching him stumble again had to be a blow to the Mets' self-esteem, particularly for a club watching everyone else making deals to improve themselves.

"Mike is a guy that we have counted on," Manuel said. "When you have a guy that has that kind of half, and then slips back, that puts a chink in the armor. We've got to make sure that he gets back to that level of play, and then we feel pretty good about what we got going forward. But if he doesn't, then it definitely becomes an issue."

The Mets hoped to avoid that latter scenario. But with Pelfrey showing only marginal improvement in the past month, it wouldn't hurt to secure another starter, even if it involves eating some salary for the likes of the Cubs' Ted Lilly or the Indians' Jake Westbrook.

Neither Lilly nor Westbrook is a game-changer like Oswalt or Lee. But moving Hisanori Takahashi to the bullpen will help avoid the disaster that followed Pelfrey Friday night. There's no replacing him now. But salvaging what he can provide should be the goal if the Mets are to stay in the playoff hunt.

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