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.