Friday, February 12, 2016

Why Phillies will be aggressive with Aaron Nola

Aaron Nola, once he is ready, will make his debut in the Florida State League for single-A Clearwater. No Phillies first-round pick has started his professional career at Clearwater since Pat Burrell in 1998.

Why Phillies will be aggressive with Aaron Nola

Phillies newly-drafted pitcher Aaron Nola. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Phillies newly-drafted pitcher Aaron Nola. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Sometime this week, Aaron Nola will fly to Florida and join other recent draft picks at the Phillies' training complex in Clearwater. A few of the selections will head to Williamsport, a short-season team that begins play Friday. Others will linger in Clearwater and compete for the Gulf Coast League Phillies. One or two could go to single-A Lakewood.

But Nola, once he is ready, will make his debut in the Florida State League for single-A Clearwater. No Phillies first-round pick has started his professional career at Clearwater since Pat Burrell in 1998. Pitchers, typically, require more developmental time. Carlton Loewer, the 23d overall pick in 1994, debuted at Clearwater in 1995.

The Phillies envision Nola, 21, there in a few weeks' time. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. even left the door open to Nola pitching at double-A Reading this season. The decisions will fall on Joe Jordan, the organization's farm director, and minor-league pitching coordinator Carlos Arroyo.

"He may start higher than that," Amaro said. "But we're probably going to ease him into it. We're in the process of making sure we understand his workload."

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Mike Stauffer has spent 13 years as the Phillies southeast area scout. It is his job to know the potential draft pick better than anyone else in the organization. Stauffer developed a relationship with the family, helped make a slot deal for $3.3 million happen, and advised the Phillies on Nola's potential.

He knows how Nola can rise through the minors with quickness. He witnessed it at Louisiana State University, where Nola competed in one of the best amateur settings.

"He could feel the moment," Stauffer said.

It is scout speak, but one of the higher compliments possible. LSU averaged 10,880 fans per home game. Nola may not experience that sort of atmosphere until the majors. He struck out 134 and walked 27 in 116 innings with a 1.47 ERA.

Stauffer started his file on Nola when the pitcher was a junior in high school. So, as the Phillies whittled the pool of options for No. 7, what did Stauffer look for in 2014?

"I had a lot of confidence in him when I saw him pitch," Stauffer said. "Obviously, you look from the start. He always had a preparation and plan before the game. You look at that and see what a pitcher does. From the first inning on, you see his composure. You see his ability to repeat his delivery. And he can throw those three pitches at any time.

"I've taken notes over the years. He can go back-to-back [with his secondary pitches]. He can pitch off his fastball. He can pitch on the outer half. He can use his change-up back to back or his curveball. When you see that through time, it's not one thing he's doing out there. He's very confident in what he does."

The Phillies will test that confidence with an aggressive plan. Should Nola emerge unscathed from a few months at single-A Clearwater, he could begin 2015 at double-A Reading. The majors are not far. 

Loewer, the only comparison in the last two decades, made 96 starts in the minors before his major-league debut at 24. He did not reach a mound in the months after he was drafted. He spent full seasons at double A and triple A. Nola, perhaps, will need a similar path. Maybe not.

Nola was drafted in the 22d round of the 2011 draft by Toronto but decided to follow his brother, Austin, to LSU. The Tigers hired Alan Dunn as pitching coach before Nola's freshman season. Dunn, who spent four seasons as the Baltimore Orioles bullpen coach and one as the organization's minor-league pitching coordinator, could teach from his big-league experience.

"He taught me lot about the game and helped me with my development, with pitching and as a person," Nola said. "I really thought it was one of my best decisions to go to college."

(Dunn, as it turns out, worked with Jordan in Baltimore.)

Stauffer, who saw close to half of Nola's 16 starts in 2014, was impressed by the pitcher's maturity in tense situations. Nola started 33 games for LSU in the last two seasons and lost two of them. 

All of that added up to a No. 7 pick, and one the Phillies can push.

"He competes," Stauffer said. "He does it with a lot of confidence. He's low-key, but he's fiery. You look at his record. I don't think he likes to lose."

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