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2016 Phillies Exit Interview: Aaron Nola

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Nola is the pitcher the Phillies will be watching most closely in 2016.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I hate question marks.

I mean, as a form of punctuation, they’re fine. But when it comes to my baseball team, I hate them, hate them, HATE them.

One of the players who was not supposed to be a question mark at this point in the rebuild was Aaron Nola. After coming off a solid rookie showing in 2015, hopes were high last year for the team’s first-round pick in 2014.

For a little while there, Nola not only lived up to expectations, he appeared to exceed them.

The video above was his second start of the season, in which he struck out a career-high nine batters against the San Diego Padres. In his first 12 starts, Nola went 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 78 innings, with an 85/15 K-BB ratio. He was among the league leaders in both fWAR and rWAR, and held opponents to a .212/.252/.329 slash line.

Nola would go on to record two other nine-strikeout games, and at one point had a run of 23 consecutive scoreless innings.

Then, the wheels fell off.

In his last eight starts, Nola went 1-5 with a ghastly 9.82 ERA in 33.0 innings. In his first 78 innings he walked just 15 batters. In his last 33, he walked 14. And opponents hit the bejeezus out of him, with a slash line of .367/.435/.531.

Finally, after lasting just five innings in a 7-5 win against the Braves, the Phillies announced Nola would go on the disabled list with a strained elbow.

We wailed and gnashed our teeth at the thought of Nola needing Tommy John surgery. But thankfully, at least so far, surgery has not been needed, and Nola’s agent said the pitcher is 100% healthy after completing his throwing program.

So as of right now, Nola is all good. But there are two major questions that will hover over Nola like a storm cloud as he enters Clearwater in a couple months.

Will he stay pain-free as he starts to ramp things back up and face live hitters once again? And what happens if the pain returns?

Were his issues at the end of 2016 the result of pain that he was hiding from team medical officials? Was he trying to compensate for the discomfort, which threw off his mechanics? Or were his struggles just a matter of a good pitcher who suddenly lost the ability to put the ball where he wanted?

Nola had some big strikeout games, but he is not a strikeout artist. He relies on generating weak contact thanks to pinpoint control. That control abandoned him in his final eight starts, and there’s no knowing if he will get it back.

Last year was the first time in his professional career that Nola had ever really struggled. How will he bounce back? Is he mentally strong enough to overcome it?

By the start of 2017, there weren’t supposed to be any question marks surrounding Aaron Nola. He was supposed to be the sure thing. He was supposed to be the quantity that was known.

But heading into spring training, there will be no bigger question mark than Nola.