As excitement mounted and tension built for the long-awaited face-to-face meeting between Bryce Harper and Phillies brass in Las Vegas this weekend, a distraction began to emerge. Stealing some of the thunder and momentum was news that the club and its ace, Aaron Nola, failed to reach an agreement on salary for 2019 prior to the Friday deadline of salary figure exchanges.
Nola, eligible for arbitration for the first time and on the heels of a third-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting, filed at $6.75 million, while the club filed at a surprisingly low $4.5 million. Nola was projected by MLB Trade Rumors’s Matt Swartz to make approximately $6.6 million based on his performance, arb stage, and comparable historical precedent.
Aaron Nola seeks $6.75 million in arb. Phillies at $4.5 million. Quite a spread.
— Jim Salisbury (@JSalisburyNBCS) January 12, 2019
Each of the Phillies’ nine other arbitration-eligible players reached an agreement for 2019 pay last week: Cesar Hernandez ($7.75M), Maikel Franco ($5.2M), Vince Velasquez ($2.249M), Jose Alvarez ($1.925M), Hector Neris ($1.8M), Aaron Altherr ($1.35M), Adam Morgan ($1.1M), and Jerad Eickhoff ($975K) are all done deals. Each of those players is eligible for arbitration again next season.
Almost every year, a handful of cases extend past the exchange deadline. Only a small number, if any, reach the hearing stage, a notoriously acrimonious process that can damage player/team relationships and set a sour note for the season ahead. Take the following excerpt from a recent Jeff Passan piece on the process over at ESPN:
Arbitration cases start at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. Typically, about 30 people are in the room — 10 on the player’s side, including the player, and 20 on the team’s. Each side brings 12 copies of its brief. The opposing side gets four of the copies, and a number of people then decamp to suites to begin constructing the rebuttal argument that will come later in the hearing.
To begin, the player’s side gets an hour to make its argument. After a 15-minute break, the team gets an hour. Following a 30-minute break, during which both sides finalize their closing arguments, the player’s side gets a 30-minute rebuttal and the team gets the same. Players often sit through a savaging of their accomplishments. Arbitration hearings are not for the weak of heart.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? I’m sure it’ll really make Nola feel good to hear front office reps take 15 minutes to talk about his injuries, how his 2018 may be an outlier season given his past, and any other reason they might present to try and show why he’s not worth what he says he’s worth. All that to try and “win” a winner-take-all ruling over a $2.25 million difference in opinion.
This is a case where the Phillies need to realize what’s at stake. Nola is the best pitcher the Phillies’ system has produced since Cole Hamels, and on an early track to be the best right-handed starter they’ve ever developed. He’s not exactly on Max Scherzer’s level yet, and may not quite command $20 million or so a year in any early extension that carries into free agent years, but doing right by him is incredibly important all the same.
It comes off as stinginess on the part of a team in pursuit of multiple nine-figure free agents, choosing this moment and this player to try and set a precedent to…keep the price down on Nola’s future contract extension? I guess? A lot of this is about optics, and the team is losing the perception battle at this point.
POLL: Aaron Nola filed at $6.75M, and the Phillies at $4.5M. Whose side are you on? No sitting on the fence!
— The Stupid Money Phight (@TheGoodPhight) January 12, 2019
The fan base is, understandably, so over the past few years of losing and ready to move on from that. In Nola, we see someone to lead that charge, a bona fide head of the staff that should, ideally, anchor the Phillies’ rotation for far longer than the next three years. Risking antagonizing a franchise player over a first-year arbitration figure, essentially in pursuit of paying him less in the future (a sore subject league-wide at this point), feels cold.
When the team’s owner (in a press conference you’ve heard about a billion times by this point) teases at spending money haphazardly, and when the offseason’s subsequent months are spent breathlessly disbursing clues about just when exactly the team might commit to spending $200 million or so to a free agent, it feels hypocritical to hold a line in negotiations with your first-year arb-eligible ace.
Now, to both sides’ credit, there’s still time to reach an agreement before a hearing. The Phillies can shuck the “file-and-trial” trend and figure out a way to make everyone happy. I personally think a two-year deal would be best, just to avoid this sort of thing from happening again in the 2019-20 offseason and let the waters calm before discussing a longer deal. This is a case where being a bit less robotic and, ahem, a little more “stupid” would actually be the smart play. But no matter what form it ultimately takes, the Phillies need to give Nola his make-good, nip this annoyance in the bud, and get back to focusing on having a winning season for the first time in eight years.