“”I don’t want to be a distraction,” declared Mets skipper Jerry Manuel last night before a 4-1 loss in Atlanta, though his comments to the New York Post’s Mike Puma beg the followup, “distraction, to WHAT, exactly?” Playing out the string? More quality at bats for fledgling senior citizens like Mike Hessman? A trial run at seeing if Carlos Beltran can play right field any better than Todd Hundley handled left? With the franchise teetering on the brink of irrelevancy, who amongst us actually is actually worried about Manuel’s feelings at this stage?

The embattled Mets manager admitted yesterday that he would “love to know” if the organization plans to bring him back next season, but he also isn’t about to seek out GM Omar Minaya or Jeff Wilpon for an answer.

Manuel, whose contract expires after the season, said he’ll refrain from asking because he doesn’t want to become a focal point — especially if the organization has already decided to dump him — in this final month.

The manager was approached by The Post and asked how he would react if management informed him before the season ends that his contract won’t be renewed. Art Howe was told late in the 2004 season that he was fired, but agreed to manage the Mets’ final 17 games.

Manuel was non-committal about the possibility of following Howe’s lead, should the situation arise, but made it clear he has no intention of quitting.

“I would want to do what my contract tells me,” Manuel said. “My contractual obligations, I would want to fulfill.”

In fairness to Manuel, who seems like a decent fella if a bit overmatched at times (ie Apri thru late September), he hardly called a press conference to demand resolution. The question of his further employment was posed to him by a journalist painfully aware there’s zero possibility Willie Randolph’s successor is coming back next spring. A more interesting, if not inflammatory query might’ve been whether or not Manuel felt his GM had sent him into battle this season fully armed. Or whether or not it makes any sense that Omar Minaya’s fate isn’t inextricably tied to that of the manager he promoted and retained for two successive seasons, despite disappointing results.