Awful Phillies are midseason sellers, and All-Star Cole Hamels is their most valuable trade piece

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Philadelphia Phillies have been awful, age and injury and miserable luck feeding a half-season of baseball as gloomy as there's been in their town in 15 years.

What began in a Game 5 loss in the last division series lingers nine months later. Chris Carpenter shut out the 102-win Phillies, Ryan Howard was left on the first-base line, and the St. Louis Cardinals – not the Phillies – became World Series champions. Neither Carpenter nor the Phillies has been the same since. Carpenter is headed for surgery.

The Phillies are headed for, well, what exactly?

Manager Charlie Manuel, who fended off calls for his job until the last out of the 2008 World Series (which the Phillies won), is again in the mode of reminding folks he's a fighter and a winner. He is under contract through next season.

The payments in prospects for the likes of Roy Halladay and Hunter Pence have come due, particularly as big-club injuries (to Halladay, Howard and Chase Utley) have tested the team's depth.

A payroll of $172 million is going on double what it was five years ago, a reflection of a good television deal that will get better in three years, the best TV ratings in baseball last season, a full ballpark every night and, then, the $104 million due six players – Cliff Lee, Halladay, Howard, Utley, Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins – this season alone.

The point is, the Phillies may be a bit top heavy, but not strapped by any means. President David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (along with former general manager Pat Gillick) did a remarkable job of turning the Phillies into something worth watching, then sustaining that momentum.

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It made for great baseball, great theater and then the great disappointment of three months of age and injury and miserable luck, which presents itself as 50 losses and a 14-game deficit at the All-Star break.

"It takes a long time to build up a fan base like they did," Hamels said Monday afternoon. "Now that they did, you don't want to let that wash away. They want to win. Even though you can't do it forever, you have to know how to get back up."

Assuming the Phillies are done-for in 2012, that leaves the strategy for getting back up, and what that means for the non-waiver trading deadline in three weeks, and where all of that leaves Hamels. The 28-year-old left-hander has been among the least impacted by the past three months. He's 10-4, has a 3.20 ERA, is on pace to pitch more than 200 innings again and has hardly missed a start for going on six seasons. A pitcher that durable, that effective, and who doesn't scare in October is just the kind of guy Amaro chases (see Lee, see Halladay) and, as luck has it, Hamels is due for free agency in November.

The world becomes a different place when the free agent is one of yours, however, and the season has gone all to hell, and it's time to send another pitcher through his prime at $25 million per.

Hamels would be the most attractive pitcher on the free-agent market come winter, but for the moment he will be the most attractive pitcher on the demand-heavy trade market, a list that would appear to include Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon McCarthy and a small handful of others.

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A club official not with the Phillies said Monday that Hamels could indeed be had. Judging by the cost thus far, the official said with only a dab of sarcasm, that Amaro intended to recoup the prospects lost in all of his previous trades. Too committed to their core players, both in spirit and paycheck, the Phillies are a long way from anything like a rebuild. But, if and when the symptoms of the first three months become the death knell of the fourth, the Phillies might not only seek youth and talent for Hamels, but also for Shane Victorino, Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre, Joe Blanton and anything else that's not nailed down or critical to next season.

That leaves Hamels, for all intents and purposes a Philly guy since his draft day a decade ago, in a curious position. That is, four months from free agency, or a signature from what could amount to a rest-of-his-lifetime contract, or some variation of the two, any of which sounded fine by him.

Hamels said he'd spoken with Lee about his situation. Lee, of course, was traded to Philadelphia, then traded away from Philadelphia, and then signed with Philadelphia, all over 17 months.

"A person can always come back," Hamels said.

For the record, Hamels said he would prefer to stay with the Phillies. He said he'd rather stay the summer, as well. The Phillies, for the record, say the same.

But there is no contract yet, and it seems there will be no real season for the Phillies, and Hamels also seemed excited by the prospect of putting his agent to work come wintertime. If everything resets at that point, then the Phillies would be best served to gather some players in the meantime, right?

"If you're in a situation where things aren't looking bright, then you have to do something about it," Hamels said. Later, he added almost as a challenge to the organization, "With the way things are going, it hasn't worked well. I mean it's worked well in the past. But if they just keep the same thing and just hope, I don't know if that's the certainty you get."

It's complicated. The Phillies need Hamels, but so do a lot of other clubs. And Hamels grew up in San Diego, where he learned to adore Tony Gwynn, who never left. But that alone won't make him a Philly for life. A big contract would.

"I'll always give [the Phillies] the first choice, if they were able to work something out," he said. "If you have something [in free agency] with multiple teams, they would always be on the top of my list."

So, wherever the Phillies are going, wherever Hamels is going, there's also the question of whether they're going there together.

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