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How the Phillies closed the seven-year, $172 million megadeal with Aaron Nola

Dave Dombrowski and John Middleton once again landed their top free agent. But it wasn’t without competition.

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola tips his cap to the fans at Citizens Bank Park, something he'll continue to do after re-signing with the club.
Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola tips his cap to the fans at Citizens Bank Park, something he'll continue to do after re-signing with the club.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

When the free-agent market opened for business two weeks ago, it became clear almost right away that a familiar rival would pose the primary threat to the Phillies’ quest to retain Aaron Nola.

The Braves, off back-to-back 100-win seasons and divisional-round ousters by the Phillies, made a six-year, $162 million offer to Nola out of the chute, a source said Sunday. It was a sensible starting point. Atlanta’s bid equaled the Yankees’ deal with free-agent lefty Carlos Rodón last winter.

It was also neither the Braves’ final offer nor the only one that Nola received. The deep-pocketed — and pitching-starving — Dodgers put a finger on the scale at $165 million, according to a source. Phillies officials suspected more teams were involved, with at least one other club offering more.

» READ MORE: Murphy: Phillies take a big but manageable risk on Aaron Nola and position themselves to improve elsewhere

But the Phillies didn’t have much appetite for a bidding war. All along, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said re-signing Nola was the club’s “priority,” a sentiment that grew even stronger as it explored the alternatives in free agency and the trade market.

Talks picked up late last week. Nola strongly preferred staying with the Phillies, and his agent Joe Longo let it be known that $172 million would get it done. The Phillies agreed, provided the contract was lengthened to seven years to reduce the average annual value to less than $25 million for luxury-tax purposes. It’s a structure they have used in the past, notably with Bryce Harper.

And that’s how the sides agreed Sunday on the third-largest contract in franchise history and the largest for a pitcher, surpassing the six-year, $144 million extension for Cole Hamels 11 years ago.

The implications are wide-ranging. Start here: The top of the rotation is intact, with Nola rejoining ace Zack Wheeler and lefty Ranger Suárez.

Although the Phillies remain in the mix for 25-year-old Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whose 45-day window to negotiate with MLB teams opens Tuesday, they’re believed to be more interested in a contract extension for Wheeler. If they acquire additional pitching help, it’s more likely come at the back of the rotation.

Instead, the Phillies are expected to focus more on recasting the bullpen, improving the bench, and adding a righty-hitting outfielder to compete with Johan Rojas in spring training or a left-handed hitter to share time with him in center field.

The Phillies should have the financial flexibility to satisfy those needs. They have 13 players, including Nola, signed next year for $202 million. Raises for five arbitration-eligible players are expected to push that number beyond $220 million. The luxury-tax threshold is set at $237 million, but the Phillies exceeded it in 2022 and again this year.

» READ MORE: Phillies 2023 offseason tracker: Trade talk, signings, analysis, key dates, and more

And the aggressive move to keep Nola underscores a common theme over the last half-decade: John Middleton, as much as any owner, pays for the players his baseball people want.

In the five offseasons since the Phillies signed Harper, Middleton has ponied up for Wheeler ($118 million), J.T. Realmuto ($115.5 million), Kyle Schwarber ($79 million), Nick Castellanos ($100 million), Trea Turner ($300 million), and Nola. In each case, he followed the recommendation of his top executives and spared no expense.

“If your ambition is to be good, you don’t make those [signings]. If your ambition is to be great, you make those decisions,” Middleton told The Inquirer in February. “It’s just about desire, really. That’s why you do it. I want us to be great.”

Further, Middleton has been unafraid of super-long commitments. The Phillies have three players (Harper, Turner, and now, Nola) signed through the end of the decade. They will be 38, 40, and 37 years old, respectively, when their contracts expire.

In part, Middleton says it’s a function of what it took to get their deals done. But by stretching out those contracts, the Phillies maintained flexibility to keep adding stars. Nola’s contract doesn’t figure to hamstring that attempt.

Middleton also rationalized last winter’s 11-year deal for Turner by expressing confidence in amateur scouting director Brian Barber’s drafting and a farm system that is improving.

» READ MORE: Here are the Phillies players fans most — and least — want to see back next season

“If you get the farm system right, you’ll have people coming up,” Middleton said. “It’s easier to pay a 38-year-old player [in the future] if you’ve got that generation’s version of the 28-year-old Trea Turner.”

The Phillies surely applied that logic in taking a seven-year plunge for Nola. Based on typical aging curves, Nola figures to be a healthier, more effective pitcher in the first half of the contract. But given the organization’s high hopes for top prospect Andrew Painter and touted righty Mick Abel, the Phillies could have two starters on the low end of the salary scale when Nola is declining at $24.57 million per year.

There are risks inherent in signing any 30-year-old pitcher through his age-37 season, and Nola’s detractors — a strangely vocal crowd since he emerged as a top-tier starter six seasons ago — are sure to bring them up.

But Nola leads the majors in starts (175) and ranks second in innings (1,065⅓) since 2018. The Phillies have firsthand knowledge of his health history and work habits. If they’re going to wager $172 million on a pitcher to hold up for seven seasons, they might as well put it down on the devil they know.

Sonny Gray? Let the Braves worry about him. Blake Snell? Jordan Montgomery? A trade for Corbin Burnes? Leave all that to the Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox, or Yankees.

The Phillies once again reeled in their top free-agent target — four days before Thanksgiving, no less — with a minimal amount of drama. Under Dombrowski and especially Middleton, it has become their trademark.