The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — In March 2019, Aaron Nola agreed to a five-year, $56.75 million contract extension with the Phillies. A few weeks later, he wrote an essay for the Players’ Tribune about the experience of coming from Louisiana to pitch in Philadelphia.
“For me,” Nola concluded then, “this is the best place in the world to play.”
Not that he had a choice.
The Phillies drafted Nola in 2014, and he made his major league debut for them a year later after rising through their farm system. He represented them in the All-Star Game in 2018. Even if he hadn’t signed the extension, he would’ve been under the Phillies’ control through 2021.
Nola is glad he did. The last two years have been the best, he says. He pitched the Phillies into the playoffs, starting back-to-back wild-card clinchers, and gained a reputation as a big-game pitcher. Asked recently what he might add to what he wrote in 2019, he said, “It’s everything and more than I expected.”
But Nola, at age 30, is about to get another perspective. He’s a free agent, and beginning this week, his agent, Joe Longo of Paragon Sports, will be able to field offers from other teams. It will give Nola a better idea of how he’s valued away from the comforts of Citizens Bank Park.
Maybe Nola will end up right back where he started. The Phillies, after all, have said he’s their offseason priority, and owner John Middleton has a five-year streak of landing his No. 1 free-agent target.
“I can’t tell you that I feel 100 percent confident that we’re going to get it done, but we would like to sign him,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said last week. “And we’ll be aggressive in trying to make that happen.”
There will be competition, though. The Phillies, as expected, tagged Nola with a qualifying offer by Monday’s deadline, but he’s all but certain to decline it.
Because the demand for pitching always outweighs the free-agent supply, and Nola is near the top of a pitching market that includes Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray, Eduardo Rodríguez, and Marcus Stroman. Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga are coming over from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
Using Carlos Rodón’s six-year, $162 million contract with the Yankees as a floor, Nola is expected to seek at least $27 million per year. He could get offers that reach $30 million per year.
It’s too soon to handicap where Nola will sign. Several teams with money to spend (Dodgers, Mets, Giants) will come after him. Here are three other teams that could pose significant threats to the Phillies’ chances of keeping him:
Regardless of where Nola winds up, if it isn’t back with the Phillies, Dombrowski said the club will have to go outside the organization to replace him.
But consider this the nightmare scenario.
It also isn’t far-fetched. In nine major league seasons, Nola has had five pitching coaches, including Rick Kranitz, with whom he maintains a close relationship. Kranitz has been the Braves’ pitching coach since 2019.
There may be a geographical pull to Atlanta, too. Nola’s wife grew up in Georgia, and they spend time there during the offseason. They announced during the playoffs that they’re expecting their first child.
The Braves are hardly desperate for pitching, although they lacked rotation depth in the division series loss to the Phillies. They did exercise a $20 million option to retain veteran Charlie Morton, who will rejoin hard-throwing Spencer Strider and lefty Max Fried. Bryce Elder also figures to have a rotation spot.
But adding Nola to the majors’ best regular-season roster would be a double-whammy for the Phillies.
After enduring their first losing season since 2007, the Cardinals aren’t interested in rebuilding as much as reloading around cornerstone sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Their focus, according to president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, will be to acquire multiple starters to improve one of the league’s worst rotations.
The Cardinals have seen Nola at his best. He blanked them for 6 2/3 innings in Game 2 of the wild-card series last year in St. Louis, then one-hit them for seven scoreless innings Aug. 27 at Citizens Bank Park. It might have been his best start in a regular season in which he struggled to a 4.46 ERA.
But Nola made late-season adjustments to his mechanics, incorporated a slide step to better control the running game, and pitched well in the postseason to cement his free-agent value, much of which stems from his extreme durability. He has made more starts (175) and pitched the second-most innings (1,065 1/3) in baseball since 2018.
Those qualities will remain highly valued by the Cardinals and other teams at a time when most starters are being asked to do less.
Quick history lesson: The last time the Red Sox finished last in back-to-back seasons (2014-15), ownership hired a head of baseball operations (Dombrowski) and went to the top of the free-agent pitching market for a No. 1 starter (David Price).
Eight years later, Part 1 of that process is complete. Will Nola be the choice for Part 2?
The Red Sox, under new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow, might prefer right-hander Yamamoto, five years younger than Nola and a former teammate of Boston outfielder Masataka Yoshida in Japan. They also have been active in the Far East market before, especially for pitching.
But the Red Sox need a workhorse as much as an ace. Their starters logged 774 1/3 innings last season, fewer than only the Rockies, Athletics and Giants. They haven’t had a starter top 180 innings since Nathan Eovaldi in 2021.
Sounds like a team that would value a pitcher who hasn’t missed a start due to injury since 2017.