The Phillies are going to have to ante up for Hamels, their most important piece now

The Phillies shouldn't let Cole Hamels even think about leaving and get him signed ASAP. (Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA -- To this point, the Phillies haven't skimped on players' contracts. And this surely is no time to start.

Brad Lidge, Cole Hamels' former Phillies teammate put it this way regarding Hamels' talks with the Phillies: "He hasn't been willing to take a discount so far. They're going to have to ante up."

The Phillies, with their payroll of $175 million or so, are on the precipice of luxury-tax territory. But they can't think about that now, not at a time when Hamels -- who pitched life back into the struggling but proud team with eight shutout innings in Philly's 4-1 victory against Washington and has now won seven straight -- needs to be re-signed.
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What's made the Phillies special these past few years are two things. The first factor is their tough and talented nucleus. But that core comes with major question marks now, as longtime team leaders and Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have yet to play a game this year.

The second factor is their vaunted group of starting pitchers, which includes Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hamels and at one time included Roy Oswalt. But the only one who remains and also remains on the right side of age 30 is Hamels, who is 28 and looks at the moment at least like the best of the remaining trio. His victory against the first-place Nationals stopped a four-game Phillies slide.

Lee, 33, has pitched well but hasn't been able to overcome the Phillies' hitting woes and has yet to win a game. Halladay is 35, and one scout said of his 5-2 defeat here Tuesday to the Nationals, "That's the worst I ever saw him." (For the record, I think it's temporary, but he is 35 with a 4-4 record and 3.58 ERA.)

Hamels is, quite likely, their most vital player going forward.

The Phillies anteed up for Halladay and they anteed up for Lee. They anteed up for Howard and for Utley. And they anteed up twice for Jimmy Rollins.

They have rarely drawn a low line for longtime stars in their prime. It is true they were outbid by nearly double by the Nationals for $126 million man Jayson Werth. But as good as Werth is, he was already over 30 when he left, and not nearly as vital as Hamels.

The San Diego-bred Hamels lives most of time in Philly so he isn't just some California dude who planned to be a short-timer in this rugged town. But now it's getting to the point where it would almost be an upset if the Phillies signed him. Free agency is only months away, and what team couldn't use a left-handed ace who won't be 29 until after the season?

The Phillies tried to keep him by offering Jered Weaver money at the end of last season ($85 million over five years), but that offer looks like it's about a hundred years old now. The right number then would have been $120 million over six, but that's easy to say in hindsight. Matt Cain, a right-hander pitching in a bigger park who was believed intent on signing back in San Francisco, got $112.5 million over five years this spring.

Hamels pushed his winning streak to seven games for the still-in-last-place Phillies, with a  1.89 ERA in those games. The meter is running.

There's no reason not to re-sign him. Hamels is a solid citizen. The worst anyone can say is that he can be a trifle moody on some rare occasions. Big deal.

He is one of the best left-handers in baseball, and he has shown the ability to pitch and win in a hitters ballpark before a tough crowd and in a brutal conditions. The kid from San Diego clinched the 2008 World Series by thriving in cold and rain here.

"Cole's a great pitcher, so whoever gets him -- whether it's us or another team -- is going to be in great shape,'' Phillies teammate Placido Polanco said.

Three agents interviewed for this space (none of whom works for Hamels) guessed $150 million to $175 million was fair, and that was well before the hot streak started, There's no doubt C.C. Sabathia's $161 million, seven-year Yankees deal is on his mind. A lot of folks, Lidge included, are speculating the Dodgers.

The Phillies, who haven't been in touch lately with Hamels about the contractual situation, need him more. His teammates get that. But it's clear they also understand that he could easily go elsewhere. And they don't begrudge him that.

"He's been a huge part of this organization. But he's at a point in his career where he's earned the right to be a free agent,'' Lee said. "Obviously we'd love to have him back, and there's still a chance. But I think he deserves that opportunity.''

For his part, Hamels noted that "I'm here right now,'' and that for the time being, he's going to think about anything beyond the next pitch, or maybe at most the next game. To think about anything else, he said, "would not really be fair to my teammates or fans.''

The Phillies are famously fair to their deserving stars. Despite their recent injury spate and cold streak, their fans remain good to them. This was their 228th consecutive regular-season sellout. It's been a very nice relationship between a town and its team.

The team has been better about paying back and spending its revenue than just about any other team in baseball. And while the Phillies look like they're in a bit of a financial box over this, they have no choice but to try hard to keep Hamels in Philly. Johan Santana's Mets deal for $138 million for six years seems like a decent starting point.

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