“Removing the interim label from Mets manager Jerry Manuel was supposed to be a slam dunk this week, with a Shea Stadium news conference expected any day,” writes Newsday’s David Lennon, ” but that optimism has cooled and been replaced by a tougher negotiating stance on the Mets’ part after Manuel balked at the club’s initial two-year offer.” Apparently, one has to preside over two consecutive late season collapses to receive a lengthier contract extension from the Wilpons.

A person familiar with the .situation said the Mets were prepared to give Manuel a two-year deal worth roughly $1.5 million and that the team has indicated it’s not willing to move much off that figure. By comparison, Willie Randolph’s first contract with the Mets, signed in 2005, was a three-year deal worth $1.875 million.

Although the Mets definitely value what Manuel, 54, did to resuscitate their season, they do not see him as irreplaceable despite his popularity in the clubhouse and good relationship with the New York media horde — two things that worked to his advantage after taking over for the fired Randolph.

But if negotiations do fall through, one of the names that could surface again is Bobby Valentine. The club’s chilly relationship with Valentine has thawed during the past year, and the Mets’ job is one of the few that might prompt him to leave Japan. Having him return to open Citi Field next April would be like the franchise welcoming home a prodigal son.

As always, there are financial concerns as well. The Mets are paying Randolph $2.5 million not to manage next year, and that cycle has to be broken at some point. When Randolph was hired for the 2005 season, Art Howe still had two years and $4.7 million left on his contract.

(ADDENDUM : ESPN 1050’s Andrew Marchand quotes Bobby V. as being interested in the gig. Considering all the grief Gary Carter caught for openly campaigning for Willie Randolph’s job, what’s the difference here? Other than Manuel being out of contract?)

(ADDENDUM DOS : Mr. Lennon has followed his earlier report with an announcement the Mets and Manuel have come to terms on a two-year contract.  The Bobby V. storyline can always be revived with the first long losing streak of Manuel’s tenure.)