COLE HAMELS will take the mound at Citizens Bank Park tonight. But the ticking clock on his Phillies career is growing louder by the day.

Major League Baseball's trade deadline is two months from Sunday and the Phillies own the prize of the market.

That is, of course, if they decide to trade Hamels at all.

"Our hope is, within the time frame his contract is over, that we're back contending again," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said earlier this month about Hamels, whose current contract can keep him in a Phillies uniform through 2019. "We're hoping by '17 and '18, we're starting to put ourselves in that spot. And we're going to want Cole Hamels to be atop that rotation . . .

"I feel very bullish about what we have coming and how Cole can fit into this mix. So for all the people who tell us what we're supposed to be doing with our players, I think that we have to be open-minded but we also have to understand where the market is going to be in four, five years and whether or not he's a guy that we can replace."

Amaro makes an intriguing point. But he also has to have a little bit of a used-car salesmen in him this time of year, too, and the trade deadline can't officially arrive until someone is guilty of good ol' fashion posturing.

With that said, Amaro has played the Hamels market close to perfect. No intriguing trade offer came over the winter, when the Phillies began their rebuild, and two months into the 2015 regular season, Hamels is far and away the top pitching talent among players expected to switch uniforms between now and July 31.

Some could surely make a good case for Johnny Cueto, but the Reds righthander had an MRI on an ailing elbow on Tuesday. The results revealed no structural damage, but, it's still reason for concern for prospective buyers interested in the soon-to-be free agent. Ditto Oakland lefthander Scott Kazmir, who left his start Wednesday night after three innings with shoulder soreness.

Buyers: beware.

With the rest of the 2016 free-agent class playing on teams that aren't expected to sell, which includes Detroit's David Price, Washington's Jordan Zimmermann, Los Angeles' Zack Greinke and Chicago's Jeff Samardzija, Hamels stands alone as the playoff-proven difference-maker who is readily available to join a contending team.

And the list of teams likely to be interested in Hamels is almost endless, from the usual suspects (Red Sox, Cardinals, Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs), the smaller-market teams who can't afford a Hamels-type pitcher on the free-agent market, but who could take on what remains of his very-manageable contract (Pirates, Astros, Royals), or a team that would also prefer that contract to the one their current players will demand this winter (Tigers, and, again, the Dodgers).

Handicapping the Hamels' market isn't easy, given the sheer size of it. But taking into account supply and demand, the educated guess here is that Hamels lands on a big-market club that has position player prospects to deal. Amaro should receive a handsome return, given Hamels' talent and the few alternatives on the market.

The Phillies addressed their lack of pitching depth in their minor league system this winter. Although no team ever has enough pitching, both Amaro and team president Pat Gillick acknowledged this spring the need for more promising minor league bats.

Beyond shortstop J.P. Crawford and centerfielder Roman Quinn, there are few projectable players to get excited about. It's not a surprise, then, that when the Boston rumors grew loud this spring, catcher Blake Swihart and outfielder/second baseman Mookie Betts were the names in whom the Phillies were reportedly interested.

The Red Sox have since found a home in last place in the American League East. But entering play yesterday, they were also only four games behind the first-place Yankees, meaning they're hardly out of the race, let alone the Hamels Sweepstakes.

A Yankees-Red Sox bidding war (New York is home to 23-year-old power-hitting prospect Aaron Judge) would be music to Amaro's ears.

Another team to keep a close eye on in the coming weeks? The Chicago Cubs, who claimed Hamels off waivers last August, but the teams couldn't work out a trade.

Chicago is in second place (5 1/2 games behind St. Louis) in a National League Central that is home to three playoff-caliber teams (Pittsburgh was one game back of Chicago before playing at San Diego last night). Team president Theo Epstein targeted multiple frontline pitchers this winter, landing free-agent starter Jon Lester but missing out on James Shields (and, according to one report, a prospective trade for Zimmermann).

The Cubs already have promoted top prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, but middle infielder Javier Baez, catcher/leftfielder Kyle Schwarber and outfielders Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are among those still developing in what's arguably baseball's richest farm system.

From the Phillies' standpoint, Schwarber is easily the most attractive name. The 22-year-old, lefthanded-hitting catcher (who may eventually end up in the outfield) is hitting .307 with a 1.020 OPS and 10 home runs in 42 games at Double A Tennessee, picking up right where he left off at Class A Daytona after being selected with the fourth overall pick last summer (.302, .952, 10 home runs in 44 games).

Schwarber may be as close to an untouchable as there is in minor league baseball, but, as the trade market develops in the next month, perhaps he could become more touchable. Remember when the Phillies couldn't land Roy Halladay six summers ago because they didn't want to part with Domonic Brown?

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese