When Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee commence the enviable task of plotting an order for their four ace pitchers this spring, it's entirely possible the longest-tenured Phillie in the group will be the fourth starter. Cole Hamels is also the youngest of the bunch and, not surprisingly, the lowest paid.

Theoretically, he is the next in line for a multiyear extension, but those talks have yet to begin. As the Phillies' payroll grows, it's natural to wonder where Hamels fits.

Hamels' current contract expires after the 2011 season, but he is not a free agent until the 2012 season is over. The lefthander is eligible for arbitration in 2012, and his future is just one of the many decisions the Phillies will face next off-season.

Then again, it's also possible that the Phillies will resolve the Hamels question before next winter arrives. But Hamels' agent, John Boggs, said recently that the Phillies have not approached him to negotiate his client's next contract. Boggs said the ball was in the Phillies' court and he would be open to discussions during the season if the team initiates.

"My philosophy has always been the best position to take is one of concentrating on completing the existing contract with the club," Boggs said. "Concentrate on the job at hand. If the Phillies determine they would like to talk to us about something, sure, we'd be all ears."

The Phillies have negotiated extensions in-season before, signing Ryan Howard, Brad Lidge, and Jimmy Rollins to multiyear deals in recent years.

No doubt the Phillies are interested in locking up Hamels. He is, after all, one of the few core players under 30 on an aging team. His 2010 season erased many reservations about his ability to counter adversity on the mound. He is heavily involved in charitable ventures in the city and viewed as a model teammate and citizen by the front office.

When Hamels signed his deal in January 2009, both sides were optimistic.

"We will have another opportunity to have another one of these press conferences in three years," Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said at the news conference to announce the deal.

"I look forward to it," Hamels said.

"So do we," Proefrock replied.

But to prevent Hamels, who turned 27 last week, from eventually testing free agency could be costly. The Phillies had shied away from contracts longer than three years to pitchers before signing Cliff Lee. On the open market, Hamels would surely receive a contract longer than three years. So is he another exception?

"It really isn't on our radar right now," Boggs said.

After the 2008 season that ended with Hamels' coronation as the World Series MVP and one of the finest young arms in the game, the team bought out three years of arbitration with a historic contract. The three-year, $20.5 million extension represented the largest annual value on a multiyear contract for a starting pitcher in his first year of salary arbitration.

The deal was signed then because Hamels qualified for Super Two status following the 2008 season, meaning he was eligible for an extra, early year of arbitration. Players typically have three years of arbitration; Hamels has four. So the deal did not cover his entire arbitration eligibility.

Of course, the Phillies don't have to sign Hamels to a multiyear deal before the 2012 season. They could agree on a one-year deal (with or without arbitration). That could be pricey, though, and later entice Hamels to pursue a lucrative deal in free agency.

Hamels will make $9.5 million in 2011. Should he go to arbitration, he could be valued at $11 million or higher for 2012. Then, he still has free agency ahead of him.

The lefthander had a career-low 3.06 ERA in 2010 and struck out a career-high 211 batters.

"It's lining up perfectly for him," Boggs said. "He is in a position where he can decide what to do."

It's also prudent for the Phillies to see how Hamels performs in 2011 before deciding on how to proceed. Ultimately, the Phillies will likely present him with at least one option.

Before then, Hamels will take his place - even if it's as the No. 4 guy - in baseball's top rotation.

"He's very excited about it," Boggs said. "It just makes the Phillies that much stronger."

Show Me the Money

Cole Hamels is signed through next season but will be eligible for arbitration in 2012. Here's how much the Phillies' Four Aces will be paid the next two years.

Player                   2011 salary             2012 salary

Roy Halladay          $20 million            $20 million

Roy Oswalt            $16 milion            $16 million*

Cliff Lee             $11 million            $21.5 million

Hamels               $9.5 million            Arbitration

* Oswalt has a $16 million club option for 2012 or a

$2 million buyout

- Matt GelbEndText