Over the last year, whenever Aaron Nola privately wondered about his future with the Phillies, those around him tried to explain something. A few staff members urged Nola to consider his potential place in the franchise’s history. He was already one of the club’s most successful homegrown starters. And, because he came to the majors at 22 while solidifying his status as a workhorse ever since, there were summits he could reach.
This is not something that drives Nola, a simple man who has known only one employer since becoming a professional baseball player in 2014. But it was intriguing. He once shared a rotation with Cole Hamels for 10 days and, in the future, he could pitch alongside Andrew Painter. Teams like Nola because he is dependable in an era when the workhorse is an endangered species.
But Nola liked the Phillies for the same reason. They, too, are dependable. 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.
So, in the end, the two sides reached common ground on a contract they probably should have signed last spring training. This contract granted Nola his preferred length while the Phillies kept the average annual value in their preferred range. It was a compromise, sources said, that took shape last Thursday and Friday as talks intensified. Other clubs made offers to Nola, and although sources indicated Nola could have earned more money with another team, it’s unclear how much more he left on the table.
This is a reasonable deal that is not without the typical risk that comes with a starting pitcher who will turn 31 in June. It’s a contract that follows the shape of many big-money deals signed by the Phillies in recent years. They are willing to tack on a year if it mitigates the annual salary hit.
Nola’s $24.6 million AAV is the 22nd highest in MLB history for a starting pitcher. It is, as of now, the seventh-highest current AAV for a starting pitcher. (Those with greater 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 ranks ninth among current starters.
In February, when the two sides opened negotiations but stalled, Nola’s camp was seeking more than $200 million, according to multiple major-league sources. Through free agency, Nola was able to see how other teams valued him. It’s unlikely any club reached the $200 million threshold.
The Phillies were not covert about their intentions: Dave Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, has described re-signing Nola as the “No. 1 priority” this offseason. The Phillies preferred the known to the unknown. They were intrigued by Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the 25-year-old righty whose market will open Monday when the Orix Buffaloes post him, but the Phillies have never signed a player directly from Japan. They have never had a Japanese pitcher on their big-league roster. It’s been 15 years since a Japanese player donned a Phillies uniform.
Although the Phillies have increased their presence in Japan over the past two years, they faced significant barriers in convincing Yamamoto to take their money. The interest, in free agency, must be mutual. The club will not be top bidders on Yamamoto after finalizing the Nola deal, sources said.
The Phillies would have had to spend similar dollars — if not more than what they’ve committed to Nola — to sign Blake Snell, in addition to valuable draft capital because the lefty received the qualifying offer. That factored into the Phillies’ thinking to go to a seventh year, sources said. Snell, the antithesis of Nola in terms of durability, is a strong top-of-the-rotation pitcher who won the National League Cy Young Award in his walk year. Teams are buying high on Snell. The Phillies weren’t certain about that bet.
They budgeted for a frontline rotation acquisition and, with a $24.6 million AAV, the 2024 payroll is reaching uncharted heights in Phillies history. They project to be the third- or fourth-highest payroll in the sport. (Only the Mets and Yankees might carry higher figures.) But agents and clubs in contact with the Phillies said Dombrowski has indicated he’ll pursue more bullpen fortifications — probably not a top-of-the-market reliever like Josh Hader — and there is room to do so in the budget. The Phillies could still add a complementary right-handed bat through free agency or a trade. They remain interested in extending Zack Wheeler, who will be a free agent after the 2024 season, but those talks could wait until spring training.
Their biggest offseason 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 postseason. He might not be an ace, but he belongs at the top of a contending team’s rotation. How long he can occupy that status remains to be seen. Nola has started more games than any pitcher in baseball since 2018. His carrying trait is his durability and too many pitchers see their bodies fail them as they age.
But, if Nola spends the duration of the contract with the Phillies, he will break Steve Carlton’s record tenure of 15 years. He will, at the very least, be second in franchise history to 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 club’s situation. No one else offered the current stability that Nola does. Signing any other top pitcher would have required surrendering draft capital and, perhaps, more money. Atlanta, the Phillies’ chief division rival, had legitimate interest in signing Nola.
So, here they are. The Phillies and Nola are linked again and forever. He’ll become a father in 2024 and, now, his son or daughter will know what it is like to watch him pitch at Citizens Bank Park. Maybe, one day, he’ll tell them about how he decided to stay and craft a legacy as one of the greatest pitchers this 140-year-old franchise has ever known.
(Top photo: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)