The dollars & sense of keeping Hamels

Cole Hamels said all the right things, and then some.

Does he long to return to the West Coast? Not necessarily.

Does he enjoy Phillies fans? Absolutely.

Would he take less money to stay in Philadelphia? Well, maybe.

That’s right, Hamels did not rule out a hometown discount. He merely answered by saying that he wants to play for a winning team, and the Phillies are a winning team.

Everyone join hands and sing!

Hamels, 28, was so smooth in his news conference Monday, one television reporter from Philadelphia said, “It seems like you’re saying, ‘I’m going to be here no matter what. I’m going to make this work, period.’ ”

Hamels never said that. Won’t say that. Can’t say that, because he does want his fair share and the decision is not his alone.

But now that Hamels has stated so clearly and enthusiastically his willingness to remain in Philadelphia, the onus of his contract negotiations is on the Phillies.

Hamels is under contract for $15 million this season, then becomes eligible for free agency. If the Phillies want to lock him up, they will need to pay him market value, or close to it.

I’m talking five years, $110 million — and Hamels actually can argue that as a free agent he would be above teammate Cliff Lee, to whom the Phillies awarded a five-year, $120 million free-agent deal after the 2010 season.

As I wrote last month, the Phillies can’t exactly lowball Hamels after awarding monster contracts to the left-handed Lee, first baseman Ryan Howard and closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Lee turns 34 on Aug. 30. Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay will be 35 on May 14. Hamels is the only one of the three aces in his prime. As long as he stays healthy, the demand for him next offseason could be extreme.

In fact, Hamels could be the only elite starting pitcher on the open market if the Giants re-sign right-hander Matt Cain and the Brewers re-sign righty Zack Greinke — and the only elite left-hander on the market either way.

How much more valuable are lefties?

The six largest pitching contracts in history all went to left-handers — CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Sabathia again and Lee. Each received a guarantee of $120 million or more.

Hamels conceded Monday that he was not as accomplished as Lee and Halladay, saying, “Those two guys are two of the best pitchers in major league baseball, and (have) been for a substantial amount of years.”

Well, guess what?

Santana is the only pitcher on the list of $120 million lefties who had a better career ERA-plus when he signed his deal than Hamels does now.

Hamels, the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2002, also owns something that the team’s more heralded aces, Lee and Halladay, do not — a World Series championship ring.

As if those arguments aren’t enough, the Phils generally take care of their own.

In 2010, they awarded Howard a five-year, $125 million extension nearly two years before he was set to hit the open market. This past offseason, they re-signed shortstop Jimmy Rollins to a four-year, $38 million free-agent contract at age 33.

Hamels is next in line, and don’t worry; the Phillies can afford him, too. The team, before even staging its first workout of spring training, had sold 3.1 million tickets for 2012.

“Ever since I’ve been here, they’ve done a really good job keeping the guys they draft, especially the guys they like,” Hamels said. “I just hope I’m one of those guys they like.”

Hamels smiled as he said that, eliciting laughter, but he would not be out of line to question the Phillies’ intentions.

The team has not exactly rushed into extension talks. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told me last month that Hamels would be paid “handsomely” if he remained with the club, but said there are “arguments” that maybe he shouldn’t be considered elite.

Perhaps the Phillies want to see if Hamels stays healthy — he had two surgeries on Oct. 14, one to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow, the other to repair a hernia.

Hamels, though, worked 216 innings and produced a career-best 2.79 ERA last season while dealing with both conditions. He hardly seems concerned about the possibility of getting injured in his free-agent year.

“No,” Hamels said. “I’ve been injured a few times with some weird nagging injuries that you don’t really expect. I really haven’t had the serious surgeries.

“I know how to overcome (injuries). I know how to rehab. I know how to get through ’em. They’re not going to mentally take me down.”

People get fooled by Hamels’ Hollywood looks and high-pitched voice, but by now his mental toughness is apparent. He struggled mightily in 2009, the year after he was MVP of both the NLCS and World Series — but rebounded with the best two seasons of his career.

This is a confident, competitive athlete, one who understands his value and is unlikely to sell himself short. Hamels wanted to be in this position, signing a three-year deal in ’09 that left him one year short of free agency. His new teammate, Papelbon, was even more market-driven when he was with the Red Sox, signing a series of one-year deals rather than an extension.

To Papelbon, free agency was that appealing.

“You put so much hard work into getting to that point in your career,” Papelbon said. “It’s like you’re a senior in high school. You finally get to be a senior.”

Now it’s Hamels’ turn. His graduation gift awaits, from either the Phillies or some other club.