Phillies looking for Nola to be their staff ace in 2020 (Photo: Bryan Green/Flickr)

Aaron Nola was scheduled to make his fourth start of the Grapefruit League season today. However, he was apparently suffering from flu-like symptoms and the Phillies chose to scratch and rest him. The Phillies are counting on the 26-year-old right-hander to front their rotation in the coming 2020 season.

Nola was taken seventh overall by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2014 Major League Baseball amateur draft with hopes of his becoming the future number two or three starter in the pitching rotation. Over two years at Louisiana State University, Nola had gone 23-2 with ERA’s of 1.57 and 1.47 respectfully. He averaged 121 innings of work and 128 strikeouts in those two years at LSU.

After being drafted in 2014, Nola spent the next 1 1/2 years rising from High-A Clearwater to Double-A Reading. He then made a couple of starts for the Phillies Triple-A affiliates at Lehigh Valley. While pitching in all three classes of the minor leagues, Nola looked spectacular. Both Phillies fans and the organization knew he was close to reaching the big-leagues.

Halfway through the 2015 season the Phillies decided to call him up for his MLB debut. Nola made that debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on July 21. The Phillies  were in the midst of one of their worst seasons in more than a decade and this was probably the second-most exciting moment of the year for fans, behind only Cole Hamels tossing a no-hitter against the Chicago Cubs during his own final start with the team before being traded to Texas. Nola and Hamels would spend just 10 days as teammates.

Nola was sensational that night against Tampa Bay, pitching six innings and allowing only one run. He would wind up with the loss because the offense that night – and most of the season for that matter – was atrocious. He stuck with the team for the rest of the season, making 15 starts and posting a 6-2 record with a 3.59 ERA.

Fans were anxiously awaiting the 2016 season to see if Nola could improve from that 2015 rookie year. Nola would regress a bit to a 6-9 record with a 4.59 ERA over 20 starts. But regardless of his numbers the club was still high on him for the future.

In 2017, Nola wound up on the disabled list with a lower back strain toward the end of April. After being activated from that DL stint he went on a tear, making 18 starts and striking out 117 batters over the course of 112 innings of work, walking only 33 opposing hitters. In 14 of the 18 starts he went at least six innings.

In short, Nola began to show how dominant he could be, and that he could end up as the Phillies future ace. He would finish the 2017 season with a 12-11 record and post a 3.59 ERA. This would leave many fans wondering what the 2018 season would reveal. Would he be able to take a step up to another level in his young career?

In 2018, Nola would not disappoint. He posted insane numbers, going 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He struck out 224 batters over 212 innings, meaning he averaged a little over a strikeout per inning. 

That performance firmly established Nola as the Phillies ace of the future, if not the present. If it weren’t for Jacob DeGrom and Max Scherzer of the division-rival Mets and Nationals having even stronger years, Nola would have been your National League Cy Young award winner. He ended up finishing third in the voting for the honors.

As the 2018 season came to an end things looked promising for the Phillies. They would up just two games under the .500 mark and in third place in the division, their best finish in years. The front office tried to speed up the rebuild process  by trading top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, starting catcher Jorge Alfaro, and a minor leaguer to the Miami Marlins for the best catcher in the sport, J.T. Realmuto.

The front office had previously added former All-Star shortstop Jean Segura via trade and signed former NL MVP Bryce Harper, one of baseball’s most exciting stars, to a record 13-year, $330 million deal.

One thing they failed to do was address the pitching rotation to give Nola some help. He fell back a little in 2019, posting a record of 12-7 with an ERA of 3.87 and the team also disappointed, collapsing down the stretch for a second straight season to finish fourth in the division.

There was a lot of pressure on Nola to be near-perfect and carry the rotation, and in some ways the whole team. That pressure grew as the season moved along, because the offense was always hit-and-miss. The bats struggled regularly, especially after Andrew McCutchen got hurt in early June.

Coming into this 2020 season the Phillies signed talented right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler to finally provide support in the rotation. That signing alone will probably take a ton of pressure off Nola to be perfect every start.

Barring any serious injuries, Nola should have an amazing year. Hopefully he can come close to putting up numbers more in line with his 2018 season. Without Nola becoming your ace and pitching like a top-five pitcher in baseball, as he did in 2018, the Phillies will have a tough time making the postseason.

The addition of Wheeler and the hiring of former Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price as the new pitching coach under a new manager in Joe Girardi will hopefully go a long way in his development to reaching that potential as one of baseball’s best starting pitchers.

Nola has the proven ability to become a Cy Young candidate and maybe even a winner of the award this year. Reaching his full potential and remaining healthy would allow him to be a contender for those honors for years to come. It would also be a major piece to the Phillies becoming and remaining a consistent contender.

In his three starts this spring, Nola has allowed four earned runs and 13 hits over eight innings. He also has a phenomenal 9/1 strikeout-to-walk rate. Once he recovers from what should be his brief bout with illness and spring training goes forward, look for Nola to begin pitching deeper into games in preparation for his third straight Opening Day start on the mound. Hopefully it will mark the start of a long and prosperous season ending in a Phillies playoff berth for the first time since 2011.





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