It might not appear this way now, but Dave Dombrowski wasn't confident when the offseason began that the Phillies would be able to lock up Aaron Nola long-term — much less find common ground on a contract on November 19, five days before Thanksgiving and two weeks before MLB’s Winter Meetings.
Hopeful? Yes. Convinced? No.
“I wasn’t confident,” the Phillies’ president of baseball operations said Monday afternoon at a press conference to announce Nola’s new seven-year, $172 million contract.
"Even though I knew that Aaron loved it here, anytime someone enters free agency, you never know what might happen. So no, I wasn't confident by any means. I was hopeful and thought it would be a great decision that worked out for everybody."
Teams were charging hard after Nola, with the Braves and Dodgers reportedly making offers similar to the Phillies', while the Cardinals also checked in with Nola's camp and the Red Sox were believed to be lurking as well. Everyone needs starting pitching. Nola was one of the top three arms on the free-agent market. The list of suitors would have only grown.
Just after the season ended, Braves president of baseball ops Alex Anthopoulos made clear that Atlanta's payroll would rise and that starting pitching was a target. In recent days, the Braves cleared out 40-man roster spots by trading right-hander Kyle Wright to the Royals and non-tendering seven players, the most of any team.
"It was most important that we kept him for ourselves, but I sure wouldn't have wanted him to go to Atlanta either, somebody that's in your own division," Dombrowski said. "There were other clubs interested in him, too, there were a lot of them. I would not have looked forward to having a pitcher of his ilk face us."
Nola could have potentially found more money elsewhere — either in annual average salary, total value or both — but that was not the only factor for the Louisiana kid who's adjusted to the Northeast, gotten married and made a home away from home over the last decade.
"I've always wanted to be a Phillie, I've always been a Phillie. This is the only place we had our eyes set on," he said. "It was the most comfortable place for me. Everybody in this organization has been so committed to winning, so committed to the players. The relationships I've made are going to last a lifetime. I feel like it would be hard to get away from those people.
"It's not really about the money for me, it's being in a place we want to be for the next seven years. That part is more important to me, the relationships and memories I've made over here and that we've made as a team. That trumps (money)."
Relationships notwithstanding, seven years and $172 million is still a ton of coin, more years and dollars than the Phillies have ever given a pitcher. There is a high likelihood that Nola will deal with injury at some point over the life of the contract, it's just the reality of throwing so many pitches year after year. He leads the National League in innings since 2018 and hasn't missed a start in six seasons. The Phillies will continue to cross their fingers that Nola will remain so durable, but paying any pitcher this kind of money is a risk. It would have been a risk with Nola, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, Yoshinobu Yamamoto or any arm the Phillies might have traded for.
"When you evaluate these sorts of things, you have to start with the makeup, and I don't know if anyone in the game has better makeup than Aaron Nola," general manager Sam Fuld said.
One of the most important pieces of the Phillies' success in 2022 and 2023 was the health of Zack Wheeler and Nola, the top two workhorses in the NL. Father Time comes for every pitcher and the decline isn't always gradual. Sometimes it's sudden, as it was for Roy Halladay, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and James Shields in recent years, just to name a few.
There is no way to guarantee health, but both Nola and Dombrowski talked Monday about the value of Nola just backing off sometimes.
"Definitely thought about that and I hope I age well, for sure," Nola said. "I'm going to do everything I can to stay durable. I feel like I have some ways I can make myself healthy and stay healthy, but it's all about what I need to do and don't need to do. If I'm too tired, there's no set thing I have to do every single day anymore. I learned early in my career that doesn't work for me. Finding my routine early in my career has helped me out a lot."
Nola's contract runs through 2030, the year before Bryce Harper's expires. The Phillies now have seven players earning at least $20 million annually and Taijuan Walker isn't far behind at $18M per year.
A huge chunk of the team is in place. The rotation is set one through five with Wheeler, Nola, Ranger Suarez, Walker and Cristopher Sanchez. Eight of nine everyday positions are claimed and the final outfield spot could be filled internally if Johan Rojas shows enough offensive improvement in spring training.
What else is on the horizon for the Phillies this offseason?
"I think the way we will now look at it is we're in a position where we can evaluate a lot of different things that could make our club better," Dombrowski said. "We don't really have a glaring spot that we needed to fill like we needed a starting pitcher. We're pretty deep in our bullpen, but of course you could always be better. Our position players, our infield is basically set. Outfield, we have a little bit of a question. We don't really have a glaring need but we will continue to look to see how we can get better."