Over the past year, every time Aaron Nola privately questioned his future with the Phillies, those around him tried to explain something away. A few staff members urged Nola to think about his potential place in franchise history. He was already one of the club’s most successful local starters. And because he arrived in the majors at age 22 in 2015 while cementing his workhorse status since then, there were heights he could reach.
It’s not something that drives Nola, a simple man who has only known one employer since becoming a professional baseball player in 2014. But it was intriguing. He’s already shared a rotation with Cole Hamels for 10 days, and moving forward, he could pitch alongside Andrew Painter. Teams love Nola because he’s reliable in an era where the workaholic is an endangered species.
But Nola loved the Phillies for the same reason. They too are reliable. They are familiar. They are comfortable. They rewarded Nola with this: His seven-year, $172 million contract, agreed to Sunday according to major league sources, is the richest for a pitcher in Phillies history.
Ultimately, the two sides reached common ground on a contract they probably should have signed during last spring training. This contract gave Nola his preferred length while the Phillies kept the average annual value within their preferred range. It’s a compromise, sources say, that took shape last Thursday and Friday as negotiations intensified. Other clubs made offers to Nola, and although sources have indicated that Nola could have made more money with another team, it is unclear how much more he left on the table.
This is a reasonable deal that is not without the typical risks associated with a starting pitcher who turns 31 in June. This is a contract that follows the shape of many big deals the Phillies have signed in recent years. They are willing to add a year if it mitigates the drop in annual salary.
Nola’s $24.6 million AAV is the 22nd highest in MLB history for a starting pitcher. This is, as of now, the seventh highest current AAV for a starting pitcher. (Those with higher annual salaries: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale.) It’s possible that by the end of this offseason, Nola’s AAV will rank ninth among current starters.
In February, when the two sides opened negotiations but failed, the Nola camp was demanding more than $200 million, according to several leading sources. Through free agency, Nola was able to see how much other teams liked him. It is unlikely that any club will have reached the $200 million threshold.
The Phillies have made no secret of their intentions: Dave Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, described Nola’s re-signing as “No.” 1 priority” this offseason. The Phillies preferred the known to the unknown. They were intrigued by Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the 25-year-old right-hander whose market opens Monday when the Orix Buffaloes draft him, but the Phillies have never drafted a player directly from Japan. They never had a Japanese pitcher in their lineup in the big leagues. It’s been 15 years since a Japanese player put on a Phillies uniform.
Although the Phillies have increased their presence in Japan over the past two years, they have faced significant obstacles in convincing Yamamoto to take their money. Interest, for free will, must be mutual. The club will not be the highest bidder for Yamamoto after finalizing the Nola deal, sources said.
The Phillies should have spent as much money — if not more than they promised Nola — to sign Blake Snell, plus valuable draft capital because the left-hander received the qualifying offer. That factored into the Phillies’ decision to move to a seventh year, sources said. Snell, the antithesis of Nola in terms of durability, is a solid high-end pitcher who won the National League Cy Young Award during his walk-on year. Teams buy expensively on Snell. The Phillies weren’t sure about this bet.
They budgeted for a front-line rotation acquisition, and with an AAV of $24.6 million, the 2024 payroll reaches uncharted heights in Phillies history. They project to be the third or fourth highest payroll in the sport. (Only the Mets and Yankees could post higher numbers.) But agents and clubs in contact with the Phillies said Dombrowski has indicated he will pursue more fortifications in the bullpen — probably not a reliever high-end like Josh Hader – and here is it possible to do it on a budget. The Phillies could always add a complementary right-handed bat via free agency or a trade. They remain interested in extending Zack Wheeler, who will become a free agent after the 2024 season, but those discussions could wait until spring training.
Their biggest off-season task was completed before Thanksgiving.
In Nola, the Phillies know the good and the bad. He disappointed for much of the 2023 season, but found a different gear in the playoffs. He may not be an ace, but he has a place at the top of a contending team’s rotation. It remains to be seen how long he will be able to occupy this status. Nola has started more games than any pitcher in baseball since 2018. His trait is durability and too many pitchers see their bodies fail them as they age.
But if Nola serves out the length of his contract with the Phillies, he will break the 15-year record held by Steve Carlton. He will, at the very least, be second in franchise history behind Carlton in strikeouts. He might trail only Carlton and Robin Roberts for all-time games started by a Phillies pitcher.
The Phillies, with this commitment, believe Nola can age well.
They also understood the market and the situation of the club. No one else has offered the current stability that Nola offers. Signing any other top pitcher would have required giving up draft capital and, perhaps, more money. Atlanta, the Phillies’ main division rival, had legitimate interest in signing Nola.
So, here they are. The Phillies and Nola are linked again and forever. He will become a father in 2024, and now his son or daughter will know what it’s like to see him throw at Citizens Bank Park. Maybe one day he’ll tell them the story of how he decided to stay and create a legacy as one of the greatest pitchers this 140-year-old franchise has ever known.
Athleticism’Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark contributed to this report.
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