Aaron Nola was the Phillies’ best pitcher last season, but he was also a lot more than that. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball. That’s why he finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting behind winner Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals.
It is also why his agents at Paragon Sports International believe he deserves a 2019 contract comparable to the one Dallas Keuchel signed as a first-year eligible arbitration player after winning the Cy Young Award with the Houston Astros in 2016.
In case you missed it, Nola’s agents and the Phillies exchanged arbitration numbers earlier this month. Nola is seeking a 2019 deal worth $6.75 million. The Phillies’ counter offer was $4.5 million. Kuechel’s $7.25 million deal set a record for a first-time arbitration eligible pitcher.
Nola’s request sure sounded reasonable. Dig deeper, in fact, and you might even come to the conclusion that Nola should have requested more than Kuechel. In his first four seasons, Keuchel was 41-35 with a 3.58 ERA, a 3.67 FIP and seven strikeouts per nine innings. Nola, as he gets ready to enter his fifth big-league season, is 41-28 with a 3.35 ERA, a 3.24 FIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is on the record as saying he values FIP more than ERA and general manager Matt Klentak will tell you that he values pitchers who miss bats more than the ones who do not. Given those facts, Nola sure appears to be the clear favorite to win his Feb. 14 arbitration case.
Which raises this point: If Nola, 25, is their best pitcher – and we know he is – why would the Phillies want to drag him through this process? It might be different if the $2.25 million difference between the sides was going to push the Phillies over the luxury tax threshold, but that’s not the case even if they do eventually sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
The Phillies could argue that they have offered Nola the second highest total ever given to a first-year arbitration eligible pitcher and they would not be wrong. David Price got $4.35 million from Tampa Bay in 2012 and Dontrelle Willis got that same amount from the Florida Marlins in 2006. The fact that one of those deals is seven years old and the other was 13 years ago also would not seem to work in the Phillies’ favor.
If there is good news for the Phillies, it does not appear as though Nola is going to hold a grudge should the arbitrator rule against him. The two sides can settle at any point before they enter the hearing room, but Nola said that was not his expectation.
“I guess I expect to go to a hearing,” Nola said Monday night before being honored as the pro athlete of the year at the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association dinner in Cherry Hill. “I mean this is baseball. It’s the business part of the game. No hard feelings between us. Whatever happens happens. We’re just going to go through it. We both have our sides to it.”
Nola said his agents have not discussed a long-term deal with the Phillies.
Kapler admitted that some players might be bothered by the financial differences that occur in arbitration. Ryan Howard seemed to be just a little disturbed before he won his arbitration case with the Phillies in 2008, but the fences mended. That, by the way, was the last time the Phillies went to arbitration with a player.
“I think there are players outside of our organization who get their feelings hurt in the process,” Kapler said. “I don’t see Aaron as the type of guy that would get his feelings hurt in an arbitration process. That’s my take on it.”
Kapler also has another take on Nola with the start of spring training just three weeks away.
“He’s probably the most prepared pitcher I’ve ever been around,” Kapler said. “The theme for 2019 is standing shoulder to shoulder and looking out for how we can help the player next to us … take a step forward. And one of the ways you can be a great teammate is by being dependable. And one of the things that leads to dependability is preparation. And, as I said, if he’s not the most prepared pitcher that I have ever been around, he’s right there with the best.”