Change is coming to Philadelphia. In a vacuum, the Phillies’ loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Nation League Championship Series just two weeks ago wasn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, the team was a year removed from breaking a decade-long playoff drought, the longest active streak in baseball at the time. In Trea Turner’s first year with the franchise, the Phillies had made it to the brink of a World Series. Life could be worse.
However, the raw facts of the situation don’t belay the sentiment surrounding the Phillies failure to secure the pennant. They didn’t just lose, they collapsed, blowing a 2-0 series and squandering two consecutive chances to take the series at home. All to clearly a lesser talented team. Their bats, their Instagram-famous, home-run mashing, All-American darling bats went ice cold. Now, headed into the 2024 season, there are more questions than answers. What do you do when your precious lineup of superstars just doesn’t perform? Is it possible to make the lineup that much deeper, the roster any more talented? What do you do when everything inexplicably falls apart?
If you’re Dave Dombrowski, you make sure that you do everything in your power to get your team back to that place. The place where failed for all the world to see. The Phillies were handed a cruel twist of fate there’s no doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean that it will follow them. That the Phillies can’t rewrite history next year, the after, and the year after that. Their window of championship contention is still wide open. Now, Dombrowski just has to keep it open for a while longer.
The first order of business is the handling of free-agent pitcher Aaron Nola. Nola, 30, is hitting free agency for the first time in his career and is looking, understandably, for a massive pay day. The Phillies, understandably, seem reluctant to give it to him.
To characterize Nola as just the longest-tenured Phillie is almost a disservice to him. He’s one of the biggest points of pride for the organization–a home-grown draft pick from an era in which the team could never land a successful first rounder, Nola has been everything the Phillies could have hoped for. In his nine years in the big leagues, Nola has made six consecutive Opening Day starts, tallied a 3.72 ERA, a 90-71 record, one All-Star team and one top three Cy Young Voting. He is one of the most durable and consistent pitchers of his era and on top of that, he doesn’t complain. He’s quiet and seemingly mild-mannered, he’s never requested a trade or complained about the state of the team to the press or caused any type of internal issue.
However, Nola has been asking for a lot of money. Prior to the season, contract extension talks between Nola and the Phillies stalled when the Phillies came up about four years and $100 million short of the 8-year $200 million Nola was reportedly asking for. While Dombrowski has stated after the NLCS that re-signing Nola will be a priority this off-season, recent reports indicate that the Phillies might be leaning in a different direction in free agency. Why? Because eight years and $200 million is a lot of money to someone when the Phillies don’t know which version of Aaron Nola they are going to get.
Are the Phillies getting October Nola? The lights-out pitcher who dazzled in the postseason, freezing the best bats in baseball over and over again. Or are they getting regular season Aaron Nola – who let up a career high 32 home runs across 193.2 innings in 2023, sporting a lackluster 4.46 ERA, a 4.03 FIP and averaged over 2 walks a game? Are they getting an Aaron Nola who in 2023 never found a hot streak, never could seem to sustain success from start to start. In 2023, Nola took a sharp step back from a resurgent 2022, in which it looked like he found his form again. Are the Phillies to believe that October Nola is what Nola will look like in the regular season from here on out? It’s a tough sell.
For the right price and time frame, bringing back Nola is no brainer. But a contract that keeps Nola in red pinstripes until he’s just about 40 is a little tougher to swallow when talking about a soft-throwing, finesse pitcher. That’s why it makes sense that the Phillies are reportedly considering left-hander Blake Snell. While Nola has three 200 inning seasons from 2018 and Snell has never reached that mark, Snell owns a Cy Young award and is about to receive another. Although Snell has had his own issues with control and letting up extra base hits, he appears to have higher upside than Nola – and if the Phillies can get him for a better price, then he may be the most logical decision.
Regardless of which pitcher, if either, the Phillies decide to sign, the move will have implications for years to come. Outside of Nola, the rotation in 2024 consists of Zach Wheeler in the last year of a 5-year, $118 million deal, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker, and perhaps Cristopher Sanchez. Top prospect Andrew Painter will miss all of 2024 in his recovery from Tommy John surgery and fellow top prospects Mick Abel and Griff McGarry don’t appear to be locks for the Opening Day roster much less the starting rotation. Whoever fills Nola’s place, whether it be Snell, a trade acquisition like Corbin Burnes or Tyler Glasnow, or Nola himself, will have to eat 200 innings not just in 2024, but for years to come. The decision to resign Nola or let him walk is just as much about what the rotation will look like in 2024 as it is about the direction of the team’s starting pitching for the next decade.