It’s never a good time to be needing starting pitching, but this winter is particularly tough, with a rather thin free-agent market allowing demand to far outstrip supply. The flip side of that, of course, is that it’s a great time to be a pitcher hitting the market — even if that pitcher is coming off of a relatively down year.
Which brings us to Aaron Nola. The longtime Phillies stalwart is coming off of a 2023 season in which he struggled to a 4.46 ERA during the regular season. He also saw his K rate and fastball velocity start trending in the wrong direction, which, entering his age-31 season, could set off alarm bells for prospective teams. And yet, it’s hard to imagine the righty not getting the bag as he hits free agency for the first time. He looked much better in the postseason, for starters — allowing just six runs in 23 innings across four starts — and in a winter bereft of real workhorses, Nola stands out, having averaged 193.2 (largely very good) innings over his last six full seasons.
He may not be the flashiest, but you can feel good about getting 200ish above-average innings and a guy who will at the very least keep you in the game every fifth day — and for a contending team, that’s worth its weight in gold. But who might actually win the sweepstakes for Nola’s services? Will he head back to the only pro organization he’s ever known, or will he leave Philly? Let’s break down his top five landing spots.
Aaron Nola free agent landing spots
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
We’ll start with the team that knocked Nola around in Game 6 of this year’s NLCS. The D-backs have played in the deep end of this particular pool before (remember Zack Greinke?), they should have money to burn this winter and they have a glaring need in their starting rotation after Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly and Brandon Pfaadt. Hard as it is to imagine Nola jumping ship to the team that just bounced him from the playoffs, Arizona feels as likely as anyone to pony up some big bucks for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30: Their position-player core (Corbin Carroll, Ketel Marte, Gabriel Moreno, Alek Thomas) will never be younger and cheaper than it is today, and their window of contention is officially open.
4. Boston Red Sox
It’s hard to tell which direction the Red Sox will go with a new chief baseball officer in Craig Breslow and an owner in John Henry who’s been squeamish about investing heavily in this team over the past couple of years. If Boston does decide to try and contend in 2024, though — and there’s no reason they can’t, really — Nola would make a ton of sense. The Sox need to acquire at least one and likely two starting pitchers: Chris Sale can no longer be counted on as an ace given his age and injury history, and while Brayan Bello, Garrett Whitlock, Kutter Crawford and Tanner Houck all flashed this season, they’re not exactly workhorses. Letting Alex Cora give the ball to Nola every fifth day would do wonders for a team that ranked toward the bottom of the league in starter innings pitched in 2023.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
No team has a clearer mandate this offseason than the Cardinals, with GM John Mozeliak basically coming out and saying that he plans on landing multiple starters in one way or another. And we’re not talking back-end types, not with the departures of Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty and how bad this rotation was in 2023. St. Louis needs some star power in the rotation, and they’re certainly not looking to rebuild, making Nola an ideal candidate as a low-maintenance vet who you can lock in and not think twice about.
2. Atlanta Braves
Yes, the thought of Nola in a Braves uniform is a weird one. But he’s already been linked with Atlanta this offseason, and he knows pitching coach Rick Kranitz from Kranitz’s time in Philly a few years ago. Plus, Nola is a southern guy, born and raised in Baton Rouge and playing his college ball at hometown LSU. The Braves have basically their entire lineup locked in for 2024, but they could use at least one more reliable starter given Max Fried’s injury history (and pending free agency) and the fact that Charlie Morton just turned 40. Plus, taking Nola away from the division rival that’s bounced you from the playoffs in each of the past two seasons would be pretty sweet.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
Of course, the most likely outcome is still the most obvious one: Nola returns to the Phillies for another run at a World Series title. They’re the only organization he’s ever known, they’re willing to spend a lot of money under owner John Singleton and GM Dave Dombrowski, and they’ll enter next season on everyone’s short list of title contenders — one that very much needs Nola back to solidify their starting rotation. A return certainly isn’t inevitable here, not with how many other deep-pocketed teams are going to be looking for top-end starters, but they get the incumbent advantage for now.