The next five months will be an advertisement for the virtues of quality young pitching — a shrinking pool in this current version of Major League Baseball. General managers will bemoan how other general managers are too reluctant to trade their young pitching. Team executives will grumble about the cost of free-agent pitching and the risks associated with it. Managers will approach postseason games with quicker hooks than ever for their ineffective starters, preferring to deploy bullpens filled with one-inning pitchers.
It all makes a pitcher such as Aaron Nola look even more valuable.
No one will apply an “ace” label to Nola because that is reserved for the rarest of pitcher; one could argue there are fewer than a dozen current aces in the game. For a pitcher to achieve that status, he must have a track record of success. Former Phillies manager Pete Mackanin called Nola “a solid No. 3 starter,” and there is a decent argument for that. It could be that Nola, 24, exists in the space between those two descriptions.
The Phillies have money to spend and will likely pursue more short-term commitments this winter before splurging after the 2018 season, when the free-agent class could be a historic one. So they have cash to spend on other projects. One of those initiatives, last winter, was a $30.5 million contract extension for Odubel Herrera that could eliminate his first two free-agent seasons.
They could pursue a similar deal with Nola this winter.
Both sides would encounter risks and compromises. Nola, if he signs this winter, would receive a sum of guaranteed money to last him for more than one lifetime. But he could sacrifice future earnings by signing before he reaches salary arbitration and free agency.
The Phillies have deemed a long-term contract to any pitcher, no matter his age, a massive risk. Nola suffered an elbow injury in 2016 that did not require surgery. But it could present a problem later. The righthander returned in 2017 with improved mechanics — more stress placed on his legs, rather than his upper half — and a little more power behind his fastball. But it was just one season. The Phillies, rather than betting on Nola now, could wait for another season of evidence before paying him.
Without a deal, Nola will make near the league minimum in 2018. He would then receive yearly raises through arbitration and become a free agent after the 2021 season. When teams agree to pre-arb contracts, they typically do it to keep the player into his free-agent years.
Nola, when asked about potential contract talks this winter, deflected.
“To be honest,” he said, “I haven’t thought about that. I’m just trying to stay healthy and go into spring training working on the things I need to work on. You know?”
There are precedents, although few in the last two years, for a Nola extension. St. Louis signed its best young pitcher, Carlos Martinez, to a five-year, $51 million deal before the 2017 season that included two team option years. The guaranteed portion of the contract bought out Martinez’s first two years of free agency; if the two options are exercised, Martinez would not become a free agent until he’s 32.
The last pre-arbitration extension for a starting pitcher was signed by Cleveland’s Corey Kluber at the start of the 2015 season.
One of the best comparables actually resided in the Phillies clubhouse during the season. In 2011 Clay Buchholz signed a four-year, $29.95 million deal that included two club options. He had accrued 2 years, 69 days of service time in the majors with a 3.68 ERA in 62 starts when he signed. He was 26.
Nola has 2 years, 76 days with a 3.94 ERA in 60 starts. He’ll turn 25 next June.
Buchholz said he instructed his agent to approach Boston with a contract proposal after the 2010 season, when he posted a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts.
“I felt like I wanted to be there,” Buchholz said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the guy who was waiting for six years to hit free agency and then test the market. I didn’t come from any type of money. So that was big for me.”
As those negotiations intensified, Buchholz went out with John Lackey — “probably my best friend,” Buchholz said. They talked about life and money.
“Never turn down your first guaranteed contract,” Lackey told Buchholz, “because a lot of stuff can happen between then and whenever that time comes up again.”
Nola likes to describe himself as a simple person. His college roommate for one year, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman, depicted Nola as an undergraduate: “He didn’t do much, man. He went to the field, worked out, got ready to pitch, and shoved.” The Phillies paid Nola a $3.3 million bonus as the seventh pick in the 2014 draft. He made $544,000 in 2017.
He could decide to wait for a larger payday. Or not.
“He’s able to manipulate the ball to both sides of the plate,” Buchholz said. “It was almost like sometimes hitters know he’s going to throw a curveball and they still can’t hit it. It’s fun to watch.”
In 2014, there were 32 pitchers in the National League with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title who posted an ERA of less than 4.00. This season, there were 15 such pitchers. Nola was one of them. And he was the youngest of those 15.
That could be enough for the Phillies to consider Nola’s long-term place in the team’s future.