Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught in the Philadelphia sports echo chamber, and there is perhaps no name in the city that generates as much conversation and strong opinion inside the chamber as Aaron Nola.
He is a polarizing figure in this city, which is strange considering he’s one of the most down-to-earth, soft-spoken, go-about-his-business players we’ve ever had. He’s a home grown talent, drafted out of LSU in 2015, a reliable innings-eater who routinely surpasses 200 innings at a time in which you can count the number of guys on one hand who does that.
He’s finished 3rd and 4th in the Cy Young voting in his career. There are few pitchers in baseball whose highers are as high, but he comes with some low lows, too. On our latest Hittin’ Season podcast, Justin Klugh noted the height of his ceiling and the depth of his floor is probably the largest of any player in baseball, which is likely one of the reasons why he is so polarizing.
In this city, Nola has his fierce defenders, as well as loud and boisterous detractors. And, here’s the thing — both are right.
Signing Nola to a seven-year contract at a little over $24 million a year is risky, but so were the other options in free agency.
Blake Snell has two Cy Young Awards, but much of his success last year came at the expense of a high walk rate and an unsustainable ability to keep hitters from doing damage with runners on base. Jordan Montgomery is a nice pitcher and stepped up in the postseason, but doesn’t have a long track record of success as a starter and doesn’t have the ceiling of Nola. Sonny Gray is fine, but he’s also 34. None of them have displayed the durability of Nola over his career, and that has real value.
But if you truly want to get a sense of Nola’s value, don’t look at his numbers. Don’t listen to his supporters in Philadelphia. Listen to some of the smartest organizations in baseball who were desperately trying to sign him this off-season. From the Inquirer’s Scott Lauber...
The Braves, off back-to-back 100-win seasons and divisional-round ousters by the Phillies, made a six-year, $162 million offer to Nola out of the chute, a source said Sunday. It was a sensible starting point. Atlanta’s bid equaled the Yankees’ deal with free-agent lefty Carlos Rodón last winter.
It was also neither the Braves’ final offer nor the only one that Nola received. The deep-pocketed — and pitching-starving — Dodgers put a finger on the scale at $165 million, according to a source. Phillies officials suspected more teams were involved, with at least one other club offering more.
The Atlanta Braves, who are desperate to figure out a way to beat the Phils in the postseason and have been victimized by Nola twice in the last two postseasons, tried to lure him from Philadelphia. The Dodgers, a perennial 100-win team that has also fallen short the last couple years, saw him as pivotal to their off-season plans. Outside of Japanese 25-year-old phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto (who the Phillies are also still reportedly pursuing), Nola was the best free agent starting pitcher on the market. Lauber reports he was offered more than $172 million from another club, but Nola preferred to stay in Philadelphia.
The very real interest from the Braves and Dodgers should make you feel better about the Phils’ re-signing Nola to what will likely be a lifetime contract. It’s probable that the last few years of the contract, much like Bryce Harper’s and Trea Turner’s, will be a bit ugly, but the World Series window is open right now, and having Wheeler and Nola at the top of the rotation still gives them a big advantage in a short post-season series.
Aaron Nola is not perfect. He is not a lock-down, bona fide ace, but he is a reliable No. 2 starter. He had a down year in 2023 as he adjusted to the pitch clock and the new rules limiting throws to first, but mechanical adjustments at the end of the season seemed to unlock the “good” Aaron Nola through the postseaon. Yeah, his Game 6 loss to Arizona (four runs allowed in 4 1⁄3 innings) came at an awful time, but numerous other top starting pitchers (Zach Gallen for example) struggled at times in the playoffs, and maybe once in a while it’s OK for the offense to rescue a pitcher who had been unhittable in every start before that.
You may not have leapt out of your chairs in excitement at the news of Nola’s signing, but it is a very good thing he’s coming back. He’s reliable. He’s dependable. And very often, he’s very good. He was better than the alternatives, and he’s better than most.
Just ask all the other teams that wanted him and failed to land him.