The situation John Boggs and Cole Hamels currently face is one that makes baseball's offseason such a unique beast.

Fresh off a campaign in which Hamels established himself as one of the game's most dominant pitchers and became a World Series MVP at age 25, the young lefthander and his agent are prepared to cash in on his early success. But just how big of a payday they will reap remains to be seen. While logic says the Phillies would be prudent to lock up their young ace to a long-term deal, Hamels won't be a free agent until after the 2012 season, meaning the Phillies control his rights for the next four seasons.

Enter the wonderful world of salary arbitration, which begins today, the first of a 10-day period when major leaguers with at least 3 years of experience - and a select few with at least 2 - can file for the process.

Hamels, like slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, is a special case, one who has little precedent with which to compare.

A season that started with him publicly expressing his discontent with his $500,000 salary ended with him winning the NLCS and World Series MVPs on top of throwing 227 1/3 innings in the regular season, second in the National League.

Boggs, a San Diego-based agent who represents Hamels, expects to at least broach the topic of a long-term deal with the Phillies at some point after arbitration figures are exchanged Jan. 19. But no serious conversations have taken place yet, and the Phillies have little incentive to make such a deal a priority.

"I'm sure as we move forward down the road we'll have some kind of conversation," Boggs said.

At the same time . . .

"We'll consider anything they have to offer, but at the same time we aren't conceding our rights [as arbitration eligible]."

Hamels is one of eight Phillies eligible for arbitration, a lode that assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said is as big as he has seen.

"I can't remember having any more than [11 eligible players], that's for sure," Proefrock said earlier this offseason.

In addition to Hamels and Howard, who last offseason became the first Phillie to ever win an arbitration ruling, the headliners include rightfielder Jayson Werth, centerfielder Shane Victorino and postseason bullpen star Ryan Madson.

The other Phillies who are eligible to file are righthanders Joe Blanton and Chad Durbin and third baseman Greg Dobbs.

Last month, the Phillies took care of three other players who were eligible, signing utility infielder Eric Bruntlett and righthanded reliever Clay Condrey to 1-year deals and nontendering and re-signing reliever Scott Mathieson.

But the heaviest lifting has yet to be done.

The Phillies have given no indication they expect to reach a long-term agreement with Howard, who isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season. The first baseman followed up his $10 million arbitration award with a season in which he hit 48 home runs with 146 RBI and finished second to Albert Pujols in the MVP voting. While Howard's batting average and on-base percentage dipped to .251 and .339 - the second straight season both numbers declined - he set a team record with 32 RBI in September and was one of the biggest reasons the Phillies overtook the Mets to win their second straight NL East title.

In short, he is in line for another big raise.

Hamels, like Howard last year, is coming off a season in which there is little historical precedent. The lefthander almost certainly will earn more than the $4 million Yankees starter Chien Ming-Wang received when he lost his arbitration battle last season. How much more will be interesting to see. Wang, then 27, was 46-18 with a 3.74 ERA with 2-plus years of experience. While the regular-season numbers of Hamels are similiar (38-23, 3.43 ERA), he has established himself as one of the game's top pitchers.

In 2003, Marlins righthander Josh Beckett won a World Series MVP in his third season. But Beckett wasn't eligible for arbitration and earned just $1.2 million the next season. The first year he was eligible for arbitration, he signed for $2.4 million. But 6 years is an eternity in the rapidly escalating world of baseball salaries, which makes it difficult to compare his situation to that of Hamels.

Werth ($1.7 million last season) and Madson ($1.4 million), who will be free agents after this season, are also in line for healthy raises and could be prime candidates for long-term extensions. Victorino ($480,000), Dobbs ($440,000) and Blanton ($3.7 million) also performed well for the Phillies last season.

The sheer number of players eligible - last year, the Phillies dealt with just two - appears overwhelming. But Proefrock and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. both rose through the baseball ranks with salary negotiations as their specialty.

"I think each one of them is an individual case," Proefrock said. "We look at the circumstances and react accordingly to what our long-term plans are for a particular player."

The fun starts today. *

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