SAN FRANCISCO - As the final days before the crucial July 31 trade deadline wear on, the Phillies' front office will continue to discuss, internally, the times at which their tradable assets would garner the most value.

For instance, it's conceivable Jonathan Papelbon could prove easier to trade in the winter, when the then-35-year-old closer is likely to be pitching on a one year, $13 million deal. The less salary remaining on Ryan Howard's albatross of a contract, the better chance the Phillies could find a taker for the first baseman, who turns 36 in November.

But in the case of Cole Hamels, the Phillies' best and most important trade piece, waiting until the winter to strike a deal would be a mistake. The 31-year-old lefthander's value in the offseason would take a hit because of a stacked free-agent starting pitching class. If the Phillies don't cash in their top bargaining chip before 4 p.m. on July 31, their next-best opportunity to trade him would be an entire year later, in the days and hours leading to next July's trade deadline.

At that point, Hamels will be a year older and will have endured another season pitching for baseball's worst team. It's not exactly the most conducive situation for success, a reality on display during the worst start - and worst inning - of Hamels' established career Friday night at AT&T Park. "Everything gets compounded" in a losing situation, Phillies interim manager Pete Mackanin noted.

The growing school of thought suggesting the Phillies could hold onto Hamels through the trade deadline stems from their recent hiring of Andy MacPhail as their next team president. Perhaps MacPhail, who had a reputation for being patient while working the trade channels when he was in Baltimore, will want to collect more information and make the all-important Hamels deal himself once he succeeds Pat Gillick in October.

But the looming free-agency class doesn't help matters for the Phillies. It offers plenty of alternatives for teams in the market for a top-of-the-rotation starter, alternatives that wouldn't force teams to part with any of their top prospects and mortgage their futures.

This winter's free-agent starting pitching market is headlined by Johnny Cueto, the Cincinnati Reds ace who will be 30 next season; the Detroit Tigers' David Price, also 30 next opening day; and Jordan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals, who turns 30 in May.

Each will command big pay days, as will 31-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Zack Greinke, if he opts out of his current deal. But in most cases, a club in the offseason is more likely to sign a pitcher to a big contract than trade for a contract such as Hamels' while simultaneously depleting its farm system.

In the winter, Hamels will be owed $70.5 million for the following three seasons with a $20 million team option or $24 million vesting option for 2019. The pitcher could his demand his option be guaranteed in exchange for waiving his limited no-trade clause. This July 31, when 65 days will remain in the regular season, he will be owed about $8.5 million for the rest of the year.

Whether they are actually considering it or not, it doesn't hurt the Phillies, of course, for contending clubs to believe they might hold on to Hamels through the winter. (CBSSports.com reported Friday that "one Phillies person told an interested team executive that they are 'not bending' on Cole Hamels.") Maybe between now and the end of the month a contender will make an offer that jibes with the Phillies' asking price.

If the Phillies don't find a prospect package they deem of proper value for Hamels, they should subsidize a portion of the pitcher's contract to ensure they do. Opting to not deal their ace before the deadline would drag on the already-overabundant trade speculation for 12 more months.

This season has appeared tough on Hamels, rocked for nine runs over 31/3 innings by the Giants on Friday. The eight-run fourth was the worst inning of the 1,918 he has logged in the major leagues. Without the typical feel for his curveball or his patented change-up, Hamels "just wasn't himself," Mackanin said.

"It's not a year that you can ever prepare for," the former World Series MVP said late Friday, after seeing his ERA balloon 0.61 points to 3.62 and his club fall to 31 games under .500. "No amount of experience can put you into that sort of situation. My job is to be able to go throw the baseball and do it as best I possibly can and the way that I know I'm capable of doing.

"But . . . you have a lot of things that are out of your control, so you have to realize that you can't try to make it something that you can control. There are a lot of different variables that are kind of going on. Sometimes I think it's hard to find the words to describe it."

If the Phillies make the right move, Hamels will need to find the proper words for only a few more weeks.

@jakemkaplan