By Anthony Castrovince

In their bid to rebuild and become a viable contender sooner rather than later, the Phillies lack leverage.

They don’t have it when shopping Ryan Howard and his diminished offensive skill set. They don’t have it when shopping an aging Chase Utley or Carlos Ruiz. They don’t have it when shopping Jonathan Papelbon and his cumbersome closer contract. They don’t have it when shopping Cliff Lee, whose ongoing elbow issues won’t immediately prompt surgery but do prompt questions about where his career is headed.

And they don’t really have it with Cole Hamels. Not with the money he makes. Not with the date on his birth certificate. Not with the number of big league innings his arm has accrued.

The Lee situation is a reminder — an unpleasant one — that between now and opening day, the Phillies need to find the best possible offer they possibly can for Hamels and make it happen. Leverage or no, Hamels remains their most valuable trade piece, and his seemingly inevitable departure is a necessary step for an organization that must not cut any corners in the accrual of young talent.

Is trading Hamels this spring — likely at a markdown from the winter asking prices — a risk? Absolutely. But not nearly as great a risk as keeping him.

Hamels, remember, had some minor elbow issues of his own just one year ago. Thankfully, they subsided, and he turned in possibly his strongest statistical season — a 2.46 ERA, 3.07 FIP and 151 ERA+ in 204 2/3 innings. It’s possible that Hamels will repeat those totals. It’s possible he will improve upon them. It’s possible he will only see minor regression. But the primary issue is not so much the stats as the status of his arm. Because the possibility of injury — one made apparent not just with Lee but also Yu Darvish — suddenly sullying Hamels’ value is always present, and that’s not a possibility the Phils have the luxury of playing around with.

Money is the huge hangup in the Hamels talks. By the standards of the day, the $100 million guaranteed to him over the next four years (five years, $114 million, if his option is exercised) is reasonable. But not when we’re talking about forking over top young talent, too. In their talks with other clubs about Howard, in particular, the Phillies have demonstrated a willingness to absorb a significant percentage of the contract in order to get something back. Unfathomable though it may seem, given that Hamels is seemingly still on top of his game, some sort of courtesy along those lines might be in order to get the right package back for Hamels.

Organizations value young talent, and many are understandably leery of the over-30 pitcher with high mileage. But there is a right value equation for every player, and it’s incumbent upon Ruben Amaro Jr. to find it with Hamels, and soon.

The ask on a Hamels return has reportedly been three prospects, one of them in the marquee vein. A select group of teams — the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Dodgers, maybe the Cardinals — have the resources in both talent and finances to make it work. And only the first three in that group have what might resemble an outright need, depending on what you feel is the value of a tested ace. Only by swallowing salary can the Phils widen that pool or increase the enthusiasm within it. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine them getting the kind of return they’re hoping for.

It seems clear that the Phillies aren’t going to get Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart from the Red Sox. They’re probably not going to get Luis Severino or Aaron Judge from the Yankees. They’re doubtful to get Joey Gallo or Jorge Alfaro from the Rangers.

What the Phils need to do is load up as best they can on the next tier beyond those top-tier-type prospects. For an organization in the midst of an overhaul, there is value in casting a wide net and seeing what sticks. There is value in being advantageous when a team like the Rangers — a team that legitimately feels it can contend and has now lost its ace — has a need. There is not much value in holding onto depreciating assets.

Pitchers are inherently just that. A year ago, we could point to Lee as the picture of durability and consistency in the face of all the issues that had unraveled the Phillies’ once-mighty standing in the National League East. Now? We’re simply hoping his elbow and stuff can hang on as he pitches through a flexor tendon tear.

None of this is to say Hamels is doomed to get hurt between now and July 31. If he were, he wouldn’t be much of a trade asset, anyway. But if the Phils hold onto Hamels into the regular season, his trade value at best will remain stable and at worst will drive downward if he gets hurt. The midseason trade market can get crowded, and it could involve multiple arms on shorter and more manageable deals than the one Hamels holds.

That’s why the Phillies, one of probably just two teams (the Braves being the other) going into 2015 in some sort of rebuilding process, need to find the best possible offer they can prior to Opening Day. They don’t have a lot of leverage, but they do still have an opportunity to improve their talent stash.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com.

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