As the offseason draws closer and closer, the rumor mill starts to get even hotter. It has been widely reported that the St. Louis Cardinals are going to be pursuing starting pitching this off-season both through free agency and trades. Historically, the Cardinals have remained on the side of caution in free agency when it comes to free agents starting pitching. The 5 year, $80M deal they gave Mike Leake is the biggest they’ve handed to a starter in free agency. Although, that has yet to prevent them from being linked to the top tier starters on the market including Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and Aaron Nola. The 30 year old Nola is the biggest of those names and will likely demand the largest contract for a free agent pitcher not named Yoshinobu Yamamoto this off-season. Down below we are going to look at some free agent signings to see what Nola’s contract could look like this winter.
Signed in 2019 - Age at signing 29 - 5 years/$110,000,000
Wheeler’s situation is not exactly the same as Nola. Whilst his deal was signed in free agency, Wheeler had considerable health questions as he previously had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and did not return until the start 2017. Then later in 2017 he was placed on the IL again due to a stress reaction in his right arm. He was also placed on the IL in 2019 again with a shoulder injury. But, injuries aside, Wheeler was a pitcher with fantastic raw stuff highlighted by his 3.23 xERA in 2018, a number significantly better than Nola’s 3.77 xERA this season. There was considerable demand for Wheeler when he was traded by the New York Mets and that demand continued into free agency when Wheeler signed with the Phillies. I think Philly is going to use this deal as the baseline for a Nola deal which I believe will ultimately lead him to pitching for a new team in 2024.
Start year 2022 - Age at signing 30 - 3 years/$71,000,000
If Aaron Nola wants to take a short term deal with a higher AAV, it will likely be very similar to Stroman’s deal. Stroman was coming off two consecutive seasons with fantastic base line numbers. His ERA in 2019 and ‘21 (he did not pitch in 2020) respectively were 3.22 and 3.02 with both numbers being better than the 3.25 and 4.46 ERA’s Nola has posted in the last two seasons. Now teams do not value base line metrics the same way they did in years past, but, it does paint a picture as to how Stroman was viewed as a pitcher at that time. If Nola does opt to go short term, which is something that would benefit the Cardinals, expect the deal to be around 3 years/$81,000,000.
Signed in 2021 - Age at signing 30 - 5 years/$110,000
Kevin Gausman had a rather up and down career prior to signing which is what led to his deal being slightly suppressed. He had some injury concerns and as recently as 2019 was used as a reliever semi frequently as he made 14 appearances as a reliever compared to 17 as a starter that season. However, in 2021 Gausman showed the elite stuff people expected out of him for years pitching to a 2.81 and struck out 227 batters in 192 innings. Nola did not carry the same injury concerns as Gausman did, but Gausman has considerably better raw stuff. Nola had a far better tracked record than Gausman, but Gausman was coming off a significantly better contract year than Nola. I’d say I think there is a chance we see Nola sign a deal slightly north of this deal. However, Nola is coming off an extremely strong postseason and has fewer overall question marks as a pitcher which should allow him to pick up a bit more on the open market.
I think the absolute ceiling on an Aaron Nola deal in terms of years would be six. There are 28 five year or longer active starting pitcher contracts in baseball currently. Only six of those were handed to pitchers who were 30 or older at the time of signing. One was given to Jacob DeGrom, another is Yu Darvish who’s AAV is just $18,000,000 and two are listed above. Then Carlos Rodon and Stephen Strasburg are the other two names, both of whom had differing circumstances which led to massive pay days.
Prediction - 6 years/$131,000,000