Phillies' Aaron Nola dominates, even on a day when he wasn't dominant

Phillies' Aaron Nola dominates, even on a day when he wasn't dominant

With the newcomers making their mark and incumbent Phillies position players driving in nine runs in an exciting opening day win, Aaron Nola's unsurprisingly strong start flew under the radar.

Although he walked a career-high five batters, Nola allowed just one run over six innings and struck out eight. He threw 99 pitches, recording a popout to Maikel Franco in foul ground to end his afternoon against the Braves.

Nola was not at his best Thursday but was also squeezed by home plate umpire Mike Winters. He wasn't missing the strike zone by much and at times not at all. 

"Obviously I don't want to walk four or five batters, but the misses with the fastball, I'll take that because I didn't think I was missing that bad," he said.

This start went a whole lot different than Nola's last opening day nod. Nola was cruising through 5⅓ innings last opening day when he was lifted at 68 pitches in a now infamous Phils loss. 

This time around, Nola labored more but had the full confidence of his manager, Gabe Kapler, to get through six. The events of last opening day led to a conversation between Kapler and Nola and a different approach the rest of the season. Nola is now a solidified ace. Rarely will you see him pulled out for matchup purposes unless he's struggling or his pitch count has reached an uncomfortably high number. 

"Two totally different starts," Nola said. "I was cruising through last year and I really wasn't cruising as much today. I threw more pitches, but I wanted to finish that inning and keep the game as close as possible. Gabe and I had a talk last year after opening day and he let me go and I got to my goal."

It speaks to Nola's evolution as an elite pitcher that he can post a dominant line even when he's not actually dominating. Last season's 2.37 ERA and .197 opponents' batting average may prove to be unrepeatable, but there's little reason to expect regression from Nola. He achieved those numbers because of his devastating four-pitch arsenal, his consistent delivery and his stoic manner. 

From the day he arrived in the majors, Nola had a knee-buckling two-seam fastball and a sharp, snapping curveball that can fool any hitter. But he's substantially improved his other two pitches. His four-seam fastball averaged 91.2 mph in 2016. Last season, it was 93.5. His changeup last season held hitters to a .243 batting average compared to .299 the year before.

Nola has grown into this pitcher, and that progression was a major reason the Phillies felt comfortable making not one but five win-now moves this offseason. The emergences of Nola and Rhys Hoskins provided the Phillies a stable core.

All of the talk Thursday was about the Phillies' offense. The grand slam from Hoskins after Bryce Harper was intentionally walked. The full-count, three-run home run from Maikel Franco out of the eight-hole.

About seven minutes into an interview with Hoskins, the first baseman noticed nobody had asked about the ace.

"Something we haven’t talked about yet, obviously Nola. Pretty standard out of Nola," he said. "He scuffled a little bit and then he settled in and did what he does."

Nola was helped at one point by his new battery-mate, J.T. Realmuto, who fired a perfect strike to second base to nab Freddie Freeman on a stolen base attempt. Freeman got a good jump but Realmuto had a better reaction. Realmuto has held MLB's fastest pop time — the transition from a catcher receiving the baseball, jumping up and releasing the ball — for several years.

"Nola was really good," Realmuto said. "The times he was missing, he was missing on the right side of the plate. He’s a guy who can command the baseball like no other."

The Phillies' 10 runs matched the most they've scored for Nola in his last 60 starts. With this team around him, it would be a surprise if he doesn't exceed last year's win total of 17.

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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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