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Aaron Nola: Jon Lester For a New Era?

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The 2015 Cubs needed a frontline starter.  They had an emergent Jake Arrieta(a former 5th rounder finally come good), some depth via FA in Jason Hammel, and the first full season of Kyle Hendricks(a command over stuff prospect) to look forward to.  They needed another rotation anchor, and they got it in Jon Lester, a 31 year old FA known for his durability, playoff pedigree, and high floor with potential ace ceiling.

The parallels to the 2024 Cubs can be overfitted but are still interesting.  They have an emergent Justin Steele(a former 5th rounder finally come good) headlining the rotation, some depth via FA in Taillon, and the first full season of Jordan Wicks(a command over stuff prospect) to look forward to, to say nothing of the potential return of Hendricks himself.  They need another rotation anchor, and I think there’s an under discussed Lester successor in Aaron Nola, a 31 year old FA with durability, playoff pedigree, and high floor with ace ceiling.

Nola is a name that doesn’t need introduction, he’s a Top 10 pick who has had significant success with the Phillies, and will receive a qualifying offer and a 9 figure contract.  And yet, during this period in the offseason when all options are on the table and fans debate all options both realistic and not, I’ve seen very little enthusiasm for the possibility of adding Nola.  I think that’s a potential blind spot given what he offers.

The first place to start with Nola is his durability.  He’s made all his starts for 6 years running,  averaging more than 6 innings per start.  We saw first hand this year the negative feedback loop created when starters get hurt or have consistently short outings.  Good bullpen arms get strained or used in the rotation, bad bullpen arms get used more, and the whole staff suffers.  Nola, more than any arm available in 2024, provides the availability to minimize that loop.

However, availability without productivity doesn’t mean very much, and thankfully Nola has a lot to offer in those innings.  He’s averaged more than 4 fWAR per season for his career, hasn’t pitched at worse than a 3.4 fWAR pace since the Cubs won it all in 2016, and has multiple 5+ win seasons to his name.  Above the top line value added, Nola throws strikes, exceeding 3 BB/9 just once.  Moreover, Nola demonstrates plus command by issuing so few free passes despite getting an elite amount of chase.  Nola is in the Top 10 qualified SP in CSW% every year.

It’s that ability to induce chase(96th percentile in 2023) that I think is at the heart of the disconnect in Nola’s actual value compared to what Cubs fans perceive their team needs.  After several seasons near the bottom of the league in SP velocity, there’s a natural desire for a frontline starter with an elite fastball.  Nola’s fastball doesn’t light up the gun, running similar average velo to the now-departed Stroman. 

But velocity or ‘stuff’ more broadly is a proxy for a different quality, the ability to get outs yourself and stand up to the best players and offenses with consistency.  When you look at that underlying quality, Nola stands up well.  He consistently posts K% appropriate for a frontline starter, especially when considering he takes the ball every 5th day and gets more outs per game than many strikeout specialists. Nola hasn’t finished outside the Top 20 in K% since the Obama administration.  Only 5 Cubs SP seasons have exceeded his career mark(27.2%) since the turn of the century and only one(Darvish, 2019) in the last decade.

Nola isn’t without his flaws and risks.  He’s prone to home runs on occasion, will cost a draft pick in compensation, and will command a salary befitting the winner of a FA bidding war for a player of his quality.  Most importantly, he’ll be 31 early in the 2024 season, and while a 6 year deal worked out for Lester it’s a risky proposition to invest big into those ages.  But the Cubs are at the point in their competitive cycle where it’s prudent to bank high end production, and the departure of Stroman means that investment would have limited impact on the ability to make other upgrades.  Nola isn’t the only SP option worth getting, but he’d make for an excellent addition, representing one stop shopping for high end quality and rotation stability.

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I can certainly squint and see the resemblance. But since this is the internet, I feel compelled to argue.

First, "while a six year deal worked out for Lester" is at least an arguable point. I recently read something that suggested his production was worth about $30M less than the salary he received. While that's certainly within the margin of error for these WAR estimates (and particularly so when there's a world series title involved), I think whether he was really worth the contract or not is at least up for debate. I'd lean towards "yes" but that's hardly settled.

But more importantly, Lester's contract fulfilled a very specific role that Nola's cannot. Lester's signing was a statement.  Signing Lester signaled we were going all-in, and that (plus the development of our young core) made us an interesting destination in 2016 for free agents. Heyward probably would have signed anyway based on the money. But guys like Zobrist, Lackey, and Fowler could have all received millions more elsewhere and opted for here because they thought we represented their best shot at a title.

There's no replicating that aspect of that signing. We had held the purse strings tight under the Theo regime prior to Lester's signing. But there's been examples since then. We have signed Swanson, Suzuki, and Taillon. Our payroll is already on the higher end of the league. So there's no statement to be made. And any statement that might be implied is muddied by the treatment of Darvish -- signed to a massive deal and traded shortly thereafter. Unless we're going full Mets with it, and that ain't happening.

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Two things scare me about Nola, both somewhat interrelated:

- He took a step back last year.  I don't mean his ERA, that can probably be blamed on the clownshow defense the Phillies ran out every day early in the year.  But his peripherals all went the wrong direction as well.  Strikeouts, walks, and groundball rate were all worse than his 3-yeat totals from '20-'22.  In Jon Lester's deal he was more or less peak Lester in '15/'16, still good in '17-'19, and bad in '20.  I worry the descent has started with Nola already, and we end up with only one great year

- Nola's innings are a double-edged sword.  It's awesome for the Phillies that he threw all those innings, but it does make me worry that he's wearing down/about to wear down.  To draw it back to Lester, his drop-off from '16 to '17 was clearly due to the deep playoff run in 2016.  He threw 237 innings (regular + postseason) that year and was never the same after.  Are we going to look back at Nola's 230 innings in '22 and say something similar?  That said, he hasn't lost a ton of velo yet, and 2022 aside his inning totals wouldn't make anyone bat an eyelash a decade ago

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Nola is perhaps the free agent I'm most interested in following this offseason. I think he's a far more realistic target than Ohtani.

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