Maybe MLB free agent floodgates will open after a key signing on Sunday

Former Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail used to say pitching is “expensive and fragile.” Two cautionary words about spending big for a hurler.

That didn’t keep the Philadelphia Phillies from keeping one of their homegrown pitchers on Sunday and the expensive part was definitely on display. Over the last three years, right-hander Aaron Nola is 32-31 with a 4.09 ERA. But the Phillies, who drafted him seventh overall out of LSU in 2014, retained him Sunday for $172 million over seven years. Reporters said the deal does not include any option years or opt-outs.

National reporters like Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan reported that Nola could have gotten more money elsewhere and also that the Braves were in hot pursuit. And having a division rival chasing your player obviously helped pushed the Phillies to get that deal to the finish line.

And while Nola was not at the very top of this free agent pitching class, he was ranked as the No. 5 free agent by and projected to get a six-year deal for $150 million. He exceeded that projection.

While Nola’s ERA was 4.46 last season, teams are clearly digging deeper than ERA numbers here and liking what they see with this pitcher. Durability is a real Nola strength. In the last six full seasons – not counting the shortened 2020 season – he has averaged a robust 194 innings, three times topping 200.

And while he has been slightly under league average in ERA in two of the last three years, his Fielding Independent Pitching number in that span is 3.31 and he has a WHIP of 1.077. He has thrown 579 innings in that stretch allowing 1.2 homers per nine in a hitter-friendly ballpark and posting impressive walk (1.8) and strikeout (10.3) rates.

Nola does have a career 3.72 ERA in 235 starts. He has finished third, fourth and seventh in the Cy Young voting since the 2018 season while leading the National League in innings in this span.

So, if you just look at his ERA the last few seasons, you will miss a few reasons he seemed to be a pitcher well pursued in free agency. His deal also is another indicator that teams have been pretty busy behind the scenes. We have not seen many signings yet, but the floodgates may be about to open.

Teams wanted this guy and he got paid and paid big.

The Phillies 2024 payroll projects somewhere around the $230-240 million dollar mark. Anymore it seems that the big dollar teams sign these long-terms deals knowing it may be likely the player will not be at top form for the entire length of the deal. Heck, some of these teams now want longer deals to spread out average annual value more and help them with the luxury tax.

Every year in free agency we can get surprised by the dollars, and it appears this year is going to be no different. Just wait until Shohei Ohtani gets his $500 million dollar deal which some think will be $600 million plus. If Nola got $172 million what will Blake Snell get?

Pitching is still expensive.

What does this mean for the Orioles? Well, the Phillies have indicated they are pursuing just one starter so maybe that is one team out of the starting pitching market. But maybe deals like this, which of course are not unexpected, show the Orioles that the less expensive route for a pitcher could be via a trade. To get someone with a couple of years of control remaining that is still not at the top of the pay scale.

Another message it could be sending is that this puts a premium on trying to keep your own homegrown talent. Is it time to pursue long-term deals with the likes of Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman? Certainly, most fans in Birdland would be in favor of that but it takes two to tango. The player and his rep must be down with that too. But sometimes teams can make good signings with players that maybe sacrifice a few bucks in total contract value to get the security of the deal at a younger age.

In the business of baseball, the contracts never get lower, just higher. The big money boys will always be handing out the big money. The rest have to figure out ways to keep up.  


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