On Wednesday, Aaron Nola signed a four-year extension with the Phillies for a guaranteed $45 million, with a club option for a fifth year that could bump the total to $56.75 million. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for Nola and his family, but it certainly looks like an underpay. Nola will turn 26 this season and he finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. Patrick Corbin finished fifth and signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Nationals earlier this offseason, and Corbin is three years older.
It’s no surprise that the extension Nola signed was team-friendly; extensions are inherently team friendly. There’s no reason for a team to overpay on a player they already have control over, and the benefit for players is that they receive certainty in the event they get injured. Yet, it comes with the potential of lost earnings.
Over the next three years, Nola might get paid a little less than what he would have received in arbitration. For 2019, he’s taking a $2 million pay cut relative to what MLB Trade Rumors predicted for his first year of eligibility. That’s assuming that Nola remains healthy, which he has since the beginning of 2017 when he missed a month with a lower back strain. In 2016, he spent time on 60-day injured list with an elbow sprain.
This isn’t to say that Nola is injury prone, and that’s why he’s taking the guaranteed money. That was likely a consideration, but there’s something more troubling about Nola’s willingness to push back his own free agency by a year and possibly two. It’s hard not to look at Nola’s decision to sign an extremely team-friendly deal and not view it as an indictment of the state of free agency.
In what would have been Nola’s first year of free agency, he’ll make $15 million, which is less than what he would make if he were to simply take a qualifying offer.
If Nola were a free agent now, it’s not difficult to imagine him getting a deal similar to Corbin’s if not a better one. Corbin arguably had the better 2018, but Nola has been the more consistent pitcher over the last three years.
Of course, Nola isn’t a free agent now; he was slated to become a free agent after the end of the 2021 season, coincidentally when the current CBA is set to expire. The landscape of free agency will likely change when the league and the MLBPA enact the next CBA, and it has to. Pitchers and catchers have already reported, and four of the top five free agents remain on the market.
I understand why Nola wouldn’t want to become a free agent when there’s no telling how what the free agent market will be like in three years. Maybe there will be a work stoppage, and Nola will be glad to have guaranteed employment when baseball resumes. Maybe under the new CBA, players will enter free agency a year earlier which would disincentivize teams from spending on 29-year-olds when there will be plenty of 27 and 28-year-olds on the market.
All this uncertainty was enough for Nola to feel comfortable forestalling a free agency where, in ordinary circumstances, he could have commanded a six-figure deal. Nola’s free agency wouldn’t have occurred under ordinary circumstances. It would have happened in the midst of what’s shaping up to be the most tumultuous collective bargaining period since 1994. Even if we can see the sense in Nola’s decision, it’s not a good indication of a healthy free agent market.
The future of free agency is unstable. Nola’s extension alone isn’t proof of that, but it’s just another piece of evidence that things are going to get worse before they get better.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.