Change is knocking on the door. Last week it came in the form of a freak accident – a misstep while fielding a routine ground ball resulted in a torn ACL for Phillies’ first baseman Rhys Hoskins, ending his season before it began. He’s likely to never don the red pinstripes again.
This past weekend, it was reported that the Phillies and starting pitcher Aaron Nola had halted negotiations on a potential contract extension after failing to reach an agreement by Opening Day. Nola, who turns 30 this June, will test free agency for the first time in his career after this year. Contract negotiations are set to resume this offseason, but still the possibility of yet another Phillies stalwart departing after the season looms large.
Such is the harsh reality for the reigning National League champion Phillies. With expectations of yet another deep playoff run in 2023, the club must walk the line between sentiment and production as their core players progress into their early to mid thirties. It’s a difficult balance to strike – we’ve seen it backfire in the early 2010s, when the team held onto an aging core for too long, scuttling the franchise into a near decade long rebuild. With the current team’s championship window set to expire in the next four-five years, President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski is faced with the same decisions that have haunted former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. since his tenure with the Phillies. Dombrowski’s decisions will not just impact the team’s immediate future, but the franchise’s long-term viability as well.
In the case of Rhys Hoskins, that might mean letting a fan favorite walk at the end of the season. In Nola’s case, however, striking that balance between team production and personal performance might entail an overpay.
In an ideal world, Aaron Nola wouldn’t be getting paid for what he’s done, but instead for what he will do. However, the world of professional baseball doesn’t exist in ideals and with Nola entering free agency, that line between his past production and future performance is even more blurred as other team’s enter the fray. The pitcher he’s been and the pitcher he’s set to become are no longer two separate entities, but instead one amalgamation of a player that teams will somehow have to assess as a financial value – past, present, and future all included.
According to Nola’s side, that financial value is upwards of $200 million guaranteed. However, per The Athletic’s Matt Gelb, the gap between offers from Nola’s camp and the Phillies was significant. That gap could either grow or shrink depending on Nola’s performance this season – a down year or significant injury to Nola could lessen his value, while a dominant year will raise it, commanding even more competition from other teams in the free agent market. Regardless if Dombrowski and the Phillies were right to halt negotiations, the front office may have missed on their best chance to sign Nola – come free agency, other clubs might be more than willing to spend what the Phillies would not.
At first, granting Nola $200 million guaranteed might seem outlandish, but when a deeper look at the numbers makes the potential contract more palatable. Home grown sentiment aside, Nola has proven himself to be not only one of the top pitchers in the game, but one of the most dependable and durable as well: since 2018, no pitcher has made more starts or pitched more innings than Nola. In a resurgent season last year, Nola finished fourth in Cy Young voting, making 32 starts and posting a 3.25 ERA over 205 innings, while leading the major leagues in strikeout to walk ratio. This Thursday, he’ll make his sixth consecutive Opening Day start. He has a better track record than recent free agent starting pitchers such as Carlos Rodon (six years, $162 million with the Yankees), Luis Castillo (five years, $108 million with the Mariners), and Joe Musgrove (five years, $100 million with the Padres prior to reaching free agency). In actuality, Nola is closer to pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Jacob DeGrom than the previous three – with another strong season, his AAV looks to be around $30-35 million, making an extension worth $200 million seem not so far fetched after all.
Another factor that could contribute to Nola receiving a payday upwards of $200 million is team need – both for the Phillies and across Major League Baseball. With Shohei Ohtani set to receive a gargantuan deal in free-agency this offseason, Nola remains perhaps the most valuable starting pitcher on the market. With a solid season, his services will be coveted by team’s across the league.
The Phillies, however, would be wise to overspend to keep Nola for without him, the starting rotation begins to fall apart. Fellow ace Zach Wheeler is already showing early signs of fatigue at age 33 and is only under contract through 2024. Innings eater Taijuan Walker, under contract through 2026 and plucky left-hander, Ranger Suarez, under contract through 2025 are hardly pieces to build a championship rotation on. Top prospect Andrew Painter suffered a UCL strain early this Spring, putting his chances to crack the rotation this season in jeopardy and fellow pitching prospects Mick Abel and Griff McGarry are just that – prospects. It would be foolish to saddle the fate of the team’s rotation atop their young, unproven shoulders.
In 2023 and beyond, the Phillies need a dependable, top-end starting pitcher. They need Aaron Nola – perhaps more than Nola needs them. With the payroll bloated to historic proportions, granting Nola a longer, more lucrative contract in order to keep his AAV down and the team competitive should be a no brainer for Dombrowski and the front office. Overpaying an elite starting pitcher won’t cost you a chance to win a world championship. Pinching pennies will.