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Cole Hamels rumors: Clock ticking for Phillies

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We're nearly two weeks away from the start of spring training. And Cole Hamels is still a Phillie.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks from today, pitchers and catchers will report to Clearwater, Florida for spring training. Will Cole Hamels be one of them?

If the Phils truly want to get the best deal for him, the answer is no.

But there are mitigating factors out there, namely, the existence of James Shields on the free agent market.

With Shields still available, teams that need a front-line starting pitcher would rather pay Shields a salary similar to what Hamels is already signed for, without giving up the top-tier prospects that Ruben Amaro and Pat Gillick are seeking. Of course, Hamels is a better pitcher than Shields, but the difference between the two may not be enough for rival GMs to pursue the Hamels trade route.

Once Shields signs, the theory is the teams that missed out on him will come knocking on the Phillies' door with a more aggressive offer for Hamels. In that case, the Phils should wait until Shields signs before making a deal.

Perhaps that's what we are seeing now.

And there is one team in particular that seems determined to land either Hamels or Shields.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, the Phils should absolutely eat a large portion of the money remaining on Cole Hamels' contract in order to "buy" themselves the kind of prospects they want back from another team. Picking up 30-50% of his salary could be the difference between landing Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart from the Red Sox, or Joc Pederson or Julio Urias from the Dodgers.

But as I also noted two weeks ago, the clock is ticking. The time to trade Hamels is now. Even the trade deadline in July is too late, because next off-season, Johnny Cueto, Doug Fister, Zack Greinke, Ian Kennedy, Mat Latos, David Price, Jeff Samardzija and Jordan Zimmerman could all be free agents. And some of those arms will certainly be dangled at the trade deadline in July.

No one is going to give the Phillies what they want with the market so flooded in July and next winter.

So, March is the very latest the Phils can make the kind of deal they want for Hamels. It has to happen before the Phils start the regular season, otherwise it's either not going to happen, or the return back will be a disappointment.

ESPN's Buster Olney wrote on Thursday that rival executives believe the Phils have waited too long and wanted too much for Hamels all along, demanding top prospects and for the acquiring team to pay all of his contract.

The Phillies have to know they're not going to get their cake and eat it too. It's just not realistic.

However, it's possible that a team might not offer the kinds of prospects the Phils are looking for even if Amaro and Gillick are willing to pay a large portion of his contract for them. And if that's the case, the team should not simply give him away for peanuts.

But the consensus around the league seems to be that if the Phils agree to eat salary, they'll get the prospects they're looking for. But only for a short while longer.

The sand in the hourglass has nearly run through to the bottom.

But hey, the worst case scenario is we get to watch Cole Hamels pitch for a little while longer, which isn't such a bad thing.