Phillies agree to seven-year deal with one-time All-Star righty

The Phillies are reportedly in agreement with right-hander Aaron Nola on a seven-year deal, per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that the agreement’s guarantee sits at $172M. Jon Heyman of the New York Post reports that the deal features no team options or opt-outs. Per Nightengale, Nola is set to undergo a physical today before the deal becomes official. Reporting earlier this morning suggested talks between the sides were picking up steam.

Nola, 30, was selected seventh-overall by the Phillies in the 2014 draft. He was a quick riser to the big leagues, making his MLB debut shortly after the All-Star break in 2015 at the age of 22. His rookie season saw him post a respectable 3.59 ERA (107 ERA+) and 4.04 FIP across 13 starts in the majors. It was a preview of the reliable, back-of-the-rotation production Nola would provide the Phillies with throughout his early twenties: he posted a 3.94 ERA (106 ERA+) across the first three seasons of his big league career, though a 3.38 FIP in that time suggested there was more potential yet to come for the young right-hander.

That potential was unleashed during the 2018 season, which proved to be a breakout campaign for Nola. The then-25-year-old righty posted a sterling 2.37 ERA while racking up 224 strikeouts across 212 1/3 innings of work. That’s good for a 27% strikeout rate, which when combined with a 7% walk rate and just 17 home runs allowed on the season left Nola with a sterling 3.01 FIP. The performance not only earned Nola his first career All Star appearance and a third-place finish in NL Cy Young award voting that year, but also an extension with the Phillies: the sides agreed to a four-year extension with a club option for the 2023 season shortly before the 2019 season began.

While Nola never quite replicated that incredible 2018 campaign over the life of his extension, he’s remained one of the most durable starters in the league over the past half-decade. Since the start of the 2018 season, only Gerrit Cole has thrown more innings than Nola’s 1065 1/3 figure. While Nola’s ERA of 3.65 is dragged down by difficult 2021 and 2023 seasons that saw him post results closer to that of a league-average starter than an ace, his 3.38 FIP over the past six seasons is a top-ten figure among arms with at least 700 innings of work across that timeframe. That leaves him with a whopping 25.5 fWAR accumulated over the past six seasons, an excellent figure topped only by Cole, Nola’s co-ace in the Phillies rotation Zack Wheeler, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom.

Impressive as those numbers are, Nola’s new deal with the Phillies is a hefty one for a pitcher coming off a 4.46 ERA (96 ERA+) platform season. Though Nola’s struggles in 2023 could fairly be attributed, at least in part, to a deflated 66.4% strand rate and an elevated 15.6% of his fly balls leaving the yard for home runs, he’ll continue to call the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park home while pitching in front of a Phillies defense that ranked below average by measure of Outs Above Average last season and bottom-five per Defensive Runs Saved. While a full-time shift to DH for Kyle Schwarber and additional reps for Bryce Harper at his new position of first base should help the Phillies out in the field next season, the defensive holes created by Nick Castellanos in right field and Trea Turner at shortstop seem unlikely to be plugged any time soon.

In giving Nola a seven year contract, which previous reporting indicated the Phillies were hesitant to do, Philadelphia continues a trend that became somewhat common place last offseason of stretching deals for top free agents in terms of years to lower the contract’s AAV. It’s a tact that was common among positional free agents last offseason, with Turner’s 11-year pact with the Phillies last offseason standing as a prime example. While the deal between Nola and the Phillies will keep the right-hander on the payroll through the 2030 season, during which Nola will celebrate his 37th birthday, the club will pay Nola just $24.57M yearly for luxury tax purposes.

That AAV comes in far below not only that of previous top-tier free agent starters like David Price ($31M AAV), but also more recent arms like Yankees lefty Carlos Rodon ($27M AAV). Nola’s annual figure is much more closely in line with that of previous free agent arms like Wheeler, Kevin Gausman and Patrick Corbin, none of whom entered free agency with a track record of success comparable to Nola’s. The lowered AAV could help the Phillies if they look to avoid surpassing higher levels of the luxury tax. In 2024, RosterResource projects the club for a payroll just over $252M for luxury tax purposes, putting them around $5M below the second luxury tax threshold of $257M. Of course, staying under that figure would require the Phillies to either trim payroll elsewhere on the roster or make virtually no additional moves this offseason, though Nola’s lower AAV could still come into play for luxury tax purposes in future seasons.

Nola clocked in at number five on MLBTR’s Top 50 free agents list this offseason, where we projected the righty for a six-year, $150M contract. While that projection ended up one year and $22M light, it seems that Nola could have surpassed the deal he took with the Phillies had he decided to sign elsewhere as Heyman reports that Nola took a lesser deal to remain in Philadelphia. It’s unclear which team or teams topped Philly’s offer, but Passan notes that the Braves were considered a “real threat” to land Nola while Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told Tom Ackerman of KMOX this morning that he had been engaged with Nola’s agents throughout his free agency but that Nola had a “really strong desire” to return to the Phillies.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has made fairly clear that the Phillies only plan on adding one arm to their rotation this offseason, and with Nola back on board it seems the club’s rotation is set headed into 2024. While it’s certainly feasible that the heavy lifting for the Phillies could already be done for the offseason, there are still holes on the roster the club could look to address. The club could look to add a bat to their left field mix rather than rely on Johan Rojas as an everyday player after a solid 59-game stint in the majors this year, while the club’s late-inning mix could use a right-handed arm to pair with Jose Alvarado after veteran closer Craig Kimbrel departed for free agency.

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