CLEARWATER, Fla. — Aaron Nola could’ve waited. Until this week, in fact, he preferred to wait. And, for decades, most players in his position — 25 years old, coming off one of the best seasons ever by a Phillies pitcher, and eligible for salary arbitration with the allure of free agency two offseasons away — would’ve waited, too.
But the rules of engagement have changed.
Back-to-back winters of historically lethargic free-agent markets have turned baseball economics on its ear. Players used to look forward to being up for auction among 30 teams. Then came last winter, when Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, and Jake Arrieta — the four biggest free-agent stars — didn’t sign until February and March.
And if that market moved in super slo-mo, this year’s barely flinched. Only four deals have been longer than four years in length, and only one (Patrick Corbin) is worth nine figures. A former Cy Young Award winner (Dallas Keuchel) and an elite closer (Craig Kimbrel) are still at home after pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. And when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — 26-year-old equivalents of soon-to-be NBA free agents Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving — draw interest from only a handful of teams, it can’t possibly bode well for the rest of the player population.
“I know guys are frustrated,” Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies’ representative in the players’ union, said Thursday. “It’s not fun to watch. Some guys may be a little bit wary of what’s going on.”
And some guys, given the chance, might choose to kick free agency down the road. Nola made that decision this week. Rather than sitting through an arbitration hearing Thursday, the right-handed ace sat at a news conference at Spectrum Field and basked in a four-year, $45-million extension that could be worth $56.75 million if the Phillies pick up an option for 2023.
“This is pretty surreal and special for me,” Nola said. “I love it here. I love the city of Philadelphia. I want to be a part of this organization — a winning organization.”
It’s true, Stacie Nola said, that her laid-back Louisiana boy has fallen hard for Philly since making his major-league debut in 2015. It helps, too, that the Phillies are done rebuilding and are committed this season to ending a seven-year playoff drought.
But Nola wasn’t interested in a multiyear deal last winter, when the Phillies broached the topic with agent Joe Longo. He brushed it off again in July, during the All-Star break. When Longo boarded a plane Tuesday, he figured he would be representing Nola in an arbitration hearing.
“I think he’s a player who talked it over with his parents and told me, ‘I want you to focus on this,’ ” Longo said. “It was within the last two days that it started to come together.”
Nola and Longo rejected the suggestion that baseball’s economic landscape was a factor. Other than once bringing up the five-year, $51 million contract signed in 2017 by St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez as an example of a pre-free-agency extension, Longo couldn’t recall talking to Nola about an economic climate in which the players agreed to a luxury-tax threshold that the owners have treated like a soft cap as a way of keeping salaries in check.
“It just felt right for me at this time for myself and my family,” Nola said. “I’m not a free agent, so it’s really not too much of my worry.”
But that’s the point. By pushing back free agency by one year, possibly two, he won’t have to worry about it until at least the 2022-23 offseason. By then, Nola will be 29, still in his prime, and the owners and players will have negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. In the meantime, the sides could be headed for a confrontation when the current contract expires after the 2021 season.
Asked whether the union’s resolve is being tested, Arrieta replied, “Absolutely.” Last month, he tweeted that pre-arbitration players should pay attention to what’s happening in free agency, because they will have the power to change it.
As much as anyone, Arrieta can relate to Harper, Machado, and the other unsigned players. Last year, he didn’t agree to a three-year, $75-million contract with the Phillies until March 11.
“From the outside looking in, from the fan perspective, people think we’re just not signing, or guys are turning deals down,” Arrieta said. “The truth is, the right deal for those guys might not be there. Those guys, I promise you, want to be in a camp with a team today, if that’s a possibility.
“We have two or three more years under the current bargaining agreement, so it’s going to be tough. Last thing anyone wants to see is a strike. It just seems like the structure of free agency and even arbitration are operating differently the last few years. If that’s the way it’s going to be in the future, we have to adapt and figure out a way to make it work.”
Nola adapted. After making $573,000 last season, he achieved financial security for multiple generations of his family without grinding through free agency. And when his time comes, maybe he’ll find the experience to be more pleasant than his peers during the last two years.