WASHINGTON -- Given his druthers, Mets manager Jerry Manuel would prefer a starting pitcher.

Though Manuel hinted in the aftermath of Thursday's loss that he would like the Mets to acquire a reliable setup man, he would rather have a top-flight starting pitcher. Who wouldn't?

"If it's a top, top starter, I'd have to go with a starter," Manuel said. "I'll worry about those tie games on the road later."

The Mets figure to be active players for the two top starting pitchers available, Cliff Lee of the Mariners and Roy Oswalt of the Astros. With the non-waiver Trade Deadline now less than a month away, however, a shutdown reliever would be a fine consolation prize.

For Manuel, who has struggled to find consistent late-game combinations, the acquisition of just such a reliever would be critical.

"What we have, more than anything, is an unproven group for the most part," Manuel said of his current eighth-inning options. "That's what makes it difficult to nail it down."

Reyes making sure not to rush back

WASHINGTON -- Jose Reyes didn't expect to be confined to the clubhouse Friday, rubbing an anti-inflammatory cream on his sore right side while discussing his condition. But what the Mets once considered a minor injury has lingered into the weekend, forcing Reyes out of his third straight game.

Reyes did not even attempt to swing a bat Friday, prompting manager Jerry Manuel to consider Sunday the best-case return date for his starting shortstop.

"I haven't played the last three days, so I do have concern," Reyes said. "The issue is still there, so that doesn't make me feel happy at all. I missed a lot of time last year, so I don't want to miss any time."

Reyes, who originally injured his side taking batting practice Wednesday in Puerto Rico, rode a stationary bike Friday and received heat treatment on his side. Though Reyes did feel marginally better Friday, oblique injuries, he knows, can be tricky. Rushing back is not an option.

"A lot of people told me to take it easy with this," Reyes said. "When you pull an oblique, you can be out for a little while."

Somewhat encouraging for Reyes was the fact that center fielder Angel Pagan, who suffered a nearly identical injury last week, declared himself fully healthy Friday and returned to the starting lineup.

Pagan needed slightly more than a full week to heal. Reyes is almost halfway to that point.

"Today he felt much better, from what I understand," Manuel said prior to Friday's game. "He'll get some treatment with no activity, and we'll see where he is tomorrow."

Apart from the obvious, Manuel has added incentive for Reyes to heal quickly. Originally, he had planned to give David Wright what he considered a much-needed day off in Sunday's series finale. But if Reyes is not ready to go, Manuel may be wary of undermining his lineup with two regulars on the bench.

Beltran ready to take next step

WASHINGTON -- Carlos Beltran went 2-for-3 with a single, double and an RBI for Class A St. Lucie on Friday in the first game of a doubleheader at Fort Myers, Fla.

"It feels good right now -- so far, so good," Beltran said of his surgically repaired right knee. "It doesn't bother me at all, and I am ready to take the next step."

That next step, manager Jerry Manuel said on Thursday, will come when Beltran plays back-to-back nine-inning games in the field this weekend. Beltran started at designated hitter on Friday but could play consecutive games in the field this weekend.

If he suffers no setbacks, Manuel said, Beltran could return to the Mets as soon as Monday. At the very least, he will rejoin the team for the first game of the season's second half in San Francisco.

"It's a great feeling the way we are playing," Beltran said. "Watching the guys on TV, I can't wait to be a part of it."

Castillo to start at second when he returns

WASHINGTON -- When Luis Castillo returns from the disabled list this month, he will be the starting second baseman. End of argument.

Mets manager Jerry Manuel confirmed that much Friday, saying it would be "tough" for Ruben Tejada to remain on the roster because of his youth.

Though the 20-year-old Tejada has done nothing but impress the Mets in his first 22 big league games, batting .257 and playing better-than-anticipated defense at a new position, he is not the one with a season and a half remaining on a $25 million contract. Castillo is.

But Tejada may still be an integral part of the organization's future.

"I think he's going to be a great second baseman," Manuel said. "I'll take Tejada anytime. I just like the way he plays the game. He puts good at-bats together. I think he plays smart. He's versatile."

Castillo, who has been on the disabled list since June 2 with a bruised right heel, is scheduled to begin a Minor League rehab assignment sometime next week. If all goes well, he could be back with the Mets around the All-Star break.

Mets sign Bruney to Minors contract

WASHINGTON -- The Mets signed right-handed reliever Brian Bruney to a Minor League contract and assigned him to Triple-A Buffalo, the team announced Thursday.

The Nationals released Bruney, 28, in May after he posted a 7.64 ERA in 19 games, striking out 16 batters and walking 20. But Bruney is just two years removed from a season in which he went 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA in 32 appearances for the Yankees.

Mets fans, of course, remember him as the pitcher who nearly came to blows with closer Francisco Rodriguez during the 2009 Subway Series at Yankee Stadium. One day after Bruney called Rodriguez's mound celebrations "a tired act," Rodriguez confronted him during batting practice at the stadium. After a heated verbal exchange, the two had to be separated by their teammates.

When asked about the signing after Friday's game, Rodriguez joked that he sent Bruney a congratulatory text message.

"It's behind us," Rodriguez said. "We discussed it, we talked and we moved forward. Now we're family. Hopefully when he comes here, he'll help us to win some games."