Is he or is he not an ace? Is he made for the big games? Should they extend him? Is he worth a big-time contract?
Aaron Nola is the most argued about Phillies player in quite some time. He has games where he looks like one of the top five pitchers in the league, but then he also has games where he seemingly loses his head and collapses.
Nola was drafted by the Phillies in the first round, seventh overall out of Louisiana State University in 2014. He was a big-league-ready college arm and was primed to be a top-end starter. He was called up to the major leagues just one year later in 2015 and has stuck with the team ever since. He has seen it all with this team, being there in the darkest of days when the team was scrapping together some wins, to last year, being at the helm of a National League Championship before losing in the World Series.
The best year of his career so far was in 2018 when he accumulated a career high 213 innings and pitched to a tune of a 2.37 era and 224 strikeouts. He came in third in Cy Young voting that year and made his lone All-Star appearance. Since that year it’s been mostly up and down causing the fan base to be split down the middle on whether or not he is the ace of this team. He is currently in the last year of a four-year, $45M contract and will be hitting the open market this off season.
So should the Phillies bring him back?
Even as a Nola fan, it’s time to let him go and reallocate that money elsewhere.
The Phillies and the 30-year old right hander were unable to come to an agreement on an extension prior to the start of the season. When free agency opens up, Nola will surely be one of the highly sought after pitchers. At 30 years old, he still has prime years ahead of him and this particular class of free agent pitchers is nothing to write home about. According to Spotrac.com, Nola could get somewhere around a six-year deal worth $140,000,000 which would put his AAV at $23,333,333. Carlos Rodon signed a six-year deal worth $162,000,000. If I was Nola and his agent, that is what I would be targeting as Nola is more accomplished than Rodon and the same age. That would put his AAV at $27 million. Does that break the bank? No, it doesn’t but $23-$27 million is enough money to acquire a difference maker somewhere else or even to multiple pieces.
Since 2018, Aaron Nola leads the league in innings pitched with 998. Second place is Gerrit Cole at 990.2 but third place drops by 57.2 innings. The pro here is that Nola is obviously reliable and the true definition of a work horse but the downside is those innings take a toll. And we may start to be seeing the cracks in the armor this year. Currently, he is second in the league with 126.1 innings pitched in 2023 with no signs of slowing down. He currently has a 4.27 era and leads the league with 21 homeruns surrendered.
Dig deeper into Nola’s numbers and you can start to see more numbers that are a cause of concern. With no one on base, batters are hitting .194 and getting on base at a .234 clip. But with any base runner, those numbers jump to a batting average of .286 and on-base percentage of .339. That’s concerning and could be a sign that he’s having trouble adjusting to the pitch clock which is here to stay. Nola’s FIP, which measure a pitcher’s ability of preventing HRs, walks and HBPs while also causing strikeouts is at a career high at 4.20 which is the highest total of his since 2015. He ranks the 26th highest in the league surrounding himself with pitchers like Bryce Elder, Cristian Javier, and Anthony DeSclafani. Not exactly the company you want when you are considered a top arm in the game.
Unfortunately, 2023 is not an anomaly. For the last five years, though he has been on top of the league in innings pitched, the era has sat in the middle of the pack, above a 3.80 three times and hovering around 3.25 the other two years. To commit to him as your 1-2 starter for the next six years and big money can be a risky endeavor.
So the question then becomes, if the Phillies don’t sign Aaron Nola, then where does that money go and what is the succession plan in the rotation. Yes, it’s true the 2024 free agent pitching class is not top notch but there are a few names that jump out that won’t require the same long-term commitment and high dollar amount. 31-year-old Blake Snell would likely garner a shorter term with lower AAV, 29-year-old Lucas Giolito would be another option who is not as highly regarded as Nola and will likely cost less or 27-year-old Julio Urias which is on the high-end and will have a lot of market competition. Another option is the Phillies explore the trade market which will be in full focus as the deadline approaches and the off-season comes around, pitchers like Marcus Stroman or Seth Lugo may be an attractive alternative.
Last option which could be seen as a risk but would be most cost effective is giving the young arms a shot at the rotation. The Phillies farm system strength is the top end pitching prospects that are currently developing (and recovering) in the minors. Andrew Painter, the number one pitching prospect in MLB, Mick Abel, the 42nd ranked prospect in MLB’s top 100 and Griff McGarry, the Phillies 4th rank prospect are waiting in the wings for their shot at the big league level.
Overall, although it might be tough to see Nola in a different uniform and he has given so much to this organization in his nine years, it’s time to let Aaron Nola go and reallocate the resources elsewhere.