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Pay Nola

It’s time to bring Aaron Nola out of the financial shadow of pre-arbitration, and pay him like the rotation leader he is

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In December 2016, the Phillies were devoid of locked-up core pieces, reliant on trying to renovate the last of the decaying championship core while hoping for a young call-up or two to emerge in 2017. There were fragments of hope here and there: Cesar Hernandez led the Majors in triples; Tommy Joseph triumphantly debuted with 21 homers after nearly succumbing to concussions; Jerad Eickhoff started to look like he may be legit; and Vince Velasquez struck out 16 Padres. But no one caught management’s eye quite like Odubel Herrera, who went to the All-Star Game after posting a .294/.378/.427 first half. He’d finish 2016 with a .291/.353/.419 across his first two full seasons, already a massive success after being snagged in the Rule 5 Draft. He was now a core piece, and he would eventually agree to a new deal that would pay him accordingly.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since the Phillies signed Herrera to his current five-year-plus-two-options contract, and in that time, the Phillies have given a multi-year deal to exactly one other non-free agent: Scott Kingery, who signed a six-year deal during Spring Training this year. Odubel’s signing looks to be a smashing early success, while the jury hasn’t even adjourned to deliberate on Kingery yet, despite his slow first half.

Those two aside, there are emerging candidates for similar treatment, all of whom you could consider as “too soon” for consideration, were it not for the Kingery precedent. Count Rhys Hoskins and Nick Pivetta as the leading examples of that group. There’s also a player who, under more basic circumstances that don’t include his supposed successor already having a deal, would also be considered for something like this (Hernandez, naturally).

But beyond that lot stands one player whose multiple seasons of experience and performance uniquely qualify him among this roster of players to be given his due share. You might have seen him battle through a tough Nationals lineup on Thursday, leading the Phils to their third win in four games against the Nats over the past week and causing Brian Goodwin some silent mental anguish after a strikeout looking.

...what just happened?

It’s time, once again, to renew calls for Aaron Nola to get paid and secure his future in Philadelphia beyond the 2021 season.

First, a refresher

As it stands right now, Nola will be a member of the Phillies for three more seasons after 2018. That’s pretty great news, regardless of what eventually ends up happening with him, contractually, since we can be optimistic about baseball now and assume the Phillies will be competitive-slash-in-the-mix for the immediate future.

Now in his fourth Major League season - but not arbitration-eligible yet because of how late he debuted in 2015 - Nola has been pretty consistently great, even as his ERA has fluctuated. He’s regularly racked up good strikeout numbers, kept the walks down, and surrendered fewer than 20 homers per year. Now, he’s also done a great job in 2018 of greatly suppressing all contact against him, and that’s resulted in a sub-.300 SLG and .560 OPS against. Stupendous.

Nola just turned 25 earlier this month. He’s younger than Hoskins, despite being in the Majors roughly four times as long. If he makes another 13 starts this year at his current rate of innings per start, he’ll surpass 190 IP and have somewhere around 540 career IP. Among all post-strike Phillies pitchers, only Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, and Randy Wolf will have had more innings in Philadelphia through their age-25 season than Nola. He’s already accomplishing a lot.

But his future feels even brighter

It’s pretty easy to say that the Phillies haven’t had a purebred starting pitcher like Nola since Cole Hamels burst onto the scene. And we all know how that worked out. Hamels, after his brilliant 2008 season, was rewarded with his first deal: A three-year, $20.5 million contract that covered the first three of his four arbitration-eligible seasons. He would then be re-signed on a one-year, $15 million deal to cover 2012 in January, and in July of that year, received a six-year pact worth $144 million. He’s been paid handsomely, and deservedly so.

What pertains most to Nola, as far as Hamels’s financial history is concerned, is that first deal. Nola will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, and will be well-positioned to receive a healthy raise over the league minimum. Unlike Hamels, Nola will not be eligible for four arbitration rounds, which is something to consider. Either way, there are two clear paths to getting Nola paid and keeping both sides out of the choppy waters of an arbitration hearing.

They could pay Nola just through his arbitration years

This is less risky, and would likely please Nola by retaining his ability to be a free agent after 2021, but it’s not the dream scenario. Part of the reason Hamels’s first deal was a win-win for both sides was that it paid Hamels, while still giving the team a cushion in the form of an additional year of team control. Hamels could be rewarded for his 2008 postseason heroics and early-career success, while still allowing the Phillies room to maneuver and decide which direction they wanted to head in when the time came.

Following this same blueprint would mean a two-year deal for Nola, leaving the 2021 season without a fixed value but still within the Phillies’ control. This would feel like a compromise, maybe the result of failed long-term negotiations. It would, by no means, be considered a failure; but it would leave loose ends. Without some semblance of free agent-year coverage, the Phillies would be in a vulnerable position, leaving Nola the out to take a one-year deal in 2021 and leave if the team’s rebuilding efforts end up falling apart.

They could also pony up and secure Nola for at least six years

A deal that starts in 2019 and runs for six seasons would take Nola through his age-31 season, ideally suited to position himself for a big free agent payday while still in his presumed prime. The Phillies, for their part, would take a risk in securing that many years, but carrying a deal over that many seasons can put both sides at ease, and firmly establish Nola as a rotation linchpin on into the next decade.

Deals of that length for first-time arbitration-eligible pitchers are a rare breed, but one comp that comes to mind is Madison Bumgarner (although, admittedly, his deal was signed in 2012 and is a bit outdated from an average annual value perspective). Bumgarner, then 22, signed a five-year, $35 million deal, plus two option years, in April 2012. That extension has turned out to be a supreme bargain for the Giants, even as Bumgarner has had to deal with significant injuries the past two seasons.

A more recent example can be found in St. Louis’s Carlos Martinez, who signed his current deal after a bit more Major League time than Nola, but at a similar age. Martinez inked a five-year, $51 million contract in February 2017 (which, surprise, also included two options), that’s set to carry him from his age-25 through age-29-or-31 seasons.

Martinez’s deal could provide a framework for Nola’s payday

The best way to compare these two would be to look at the numbers from their first four seasons, side-by-side. This captures everything Martinez accomplished before his deal, and encapsulates Nola’s work to-date (also currently in his fourth season).

Nola vs. Martinez, First 4 Seasons

. Games IP K% BB% K%-BB% ERA ERA+ rWAR fWAR
. Games IP K% BB% K%-BB% ERA ERA+ rWAR fWAR
Martinez 140 (68 GS) 492.2 22.5 8.6 13.9 3.32 118 9.0 8.3
Nola 77 (all GS) 465.2 25.0 6.7 18.3 3.59 114 10.7 11.3

Nola has, by some measures, gotten off to a better start than Martinez, though C-Mart’s early-career relief use throws a tiny wrench into the comparison. No matter; this is our best example to compare to.

The Phillies can afford this

Even after adding Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, the Phillies are still about $100 million below the luxury tax threshold. Sure, they’ll want to spend a good chunk of that this coming winter, but they’ll also need to field a complete roster around the free agents they hunt. Not only has Nola’s performance earned him this consideration from the club, it makes emotional sense to secure a homegrown talent for the foreseeable future, too. True, Nola’s had a couple of injury scares. But he hasn’t undergone Tommy John Surgery, and he’s shown what a force he can be when healthy. Even at a markup from the Martinez deal, this is a commitment the Phillies are more than capable of making, while retaining balance sheet flexibility for a free agent spending spree.

It’s time. Between now and the end of the season, I’d love to see the two sides come to an agreement that keeps Nola in red pinstripes for a long time; really, though, anytime before early next season would work, too. And I’ll admit, it’s entirely possible that Nola doesn't want to stick around that long - every negotiation has two sides, after all - but we’ve seen no public indication that he wants out. Right now, our only assumption is that a deal is possible, in some combination of length and value.

Pitchers as good as Nola don’t come around often. It’s in the club’s best interest to get him paid and secure his future with the Phillies, and the sooner that happens, the better we’ll all feel.