What a contract extension for Phillies ace Aaron Nola might look like
The right-hander won't win the Cy Young Award this year, but he earned a different distinction: the biggest bargain of any pitcher in baseball.
Aaron Nola won't win the Cy Young Award on Wednesday night. There's no shame in that, though. Not when the leading candidate had the sixth-lowest ERA among all starting pitchers in the last 50 years.
Besides, Nola has earned a different distinction. He's the best bargain of any pitcher in baseball, even better than Jacob deGrom.
In 33 starts for the Phillies this season, Nola posted a 2.37 ERA. He worked 212 1/3 innings and allowed 149 hits. He struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings and walked 2.5. He went 10-3 with a 2.17 ERA in 18 starts after a Phillies loss. He compiled 5.6 Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Fangraphs, which estimated he was worth $45.1 million this year.
Nola's 2018 salary: $573,000.
Consider it a function of baseball's warped economic structure, in which players are compensated based more on major-league service time than performance. And it underscores why a homegrown pitcher who reaches the majors at a young age is akin to a Powerball ticket. Not every team has one. Even the Boston Red Sox, often regarded as a model franchise, haven't developed a homegrown pitcher in 10 years, which is why they had to spend $217 million and multiple top prospects to acquire David Price and Chris Sale, respectively.
Nola broke into the big leagues when he was 22. Now 25, he has completed three full seasons and thus will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. And although his salary will begin rising (he's in line to make about $6.6 million next year, according to projections at MLB Trade Rumors), the really big payday won't come until he reaches free agency, which won't happen until after the 2021 season.
Unless, of course, the Phillies lock up Nola to a long-term contract before that.
The sides have not yet begun to talk about an extension and, according to several sources, likely won't broach the subject until at least January when arbitration figures are submitted. It isn't too soon, though, to consider what a reasonable offer might look like based on recent deals for comparable pitchers.
Nola emerged as elite this season but has been mostly solid since he made his major-league debut on July 21, 2015. In 569 career innings over 93 starts, he's 41-28 with a 3.35 ERA. He has 1.139 walks/hits per inning and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings. His adjusted ERA is 124.
Those numbers are strikingly similar to former Phillies ace Cole Hamels' first three seasons in the majors. Hamels worked 543 innings in 84 starts and was 38-23 with a 3.43 ERA, 1.136 WHIP, 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and an adjusted ERA of 131. And before the 2009 season, at age 25, he signed a three-year, $20.5 million deal that covered three of his four arbitration-eligible seasons.
Ten years later, allowing for both inflation and the fact that Nola has only three years of arbitration eligibility, an extension would need to be worth considerably more. Here are two more recent comparisons:
• Carlos Martinez: The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander was 34-21 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.291 WHIP, 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 118 adjusted ERA in 492 2/3 innings and was arbitration-eligible for the first time at age 24 in 2017, when he signed a five-year, $51 million extension with two team options that could extend the deal to seven years and $85.5 million.
• Chris Sale: Primarily a reliever early in his career, the lefty had a 2.89 ERA, 1.125 WHIP, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 148 adjusted ERA in 286 1/3 innings and was not yet eligible for arbitration at age 24 in 2013, when he signed a five-year, $32.5 million extension with the Chicago White Sox. Like Martinez's deal, Sale's included two team options that pushed the overall value to seven years and $57.5 million.
It's entirely possible, of course, that Nola isn't interested in an extension. Plenty of players opt to go through the arbitration process, one year at a time before reaching free agency. Thus far, deGrom has taken that route with the New York Mets. Max Scherzer, who likely will finish second in the Cy Young Award balloting, did the same with the Detroit Tigers before signing a seven-year, $210 million deal with the Washington Nationals as a free agent.
But some pitchers prefer the certainty of a long-term contract given the risk of injury. And the Phillies surely wouldn't mind locking up their Powerball ticket, who likely will still be in his prime when he reaches free agency at age 28.
Regardless, it's a conversation that surely will come up later in the offseason.
Aaron Nola is the first homegrown Phillies pitcher to finish among the top three in a Cy Young Award voting. The 25-year-old right-hander will be eligible for salary arbitration for the first time this winter. Here are a few comparable pitchers who signed contract extensions at a similar point in their careers.
*Signed an extension before becoming eligible for salary arbitration