Phillies ace Aaron Nola discusses Braves’ interest in him as free agent

Aaron Nola #27 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch in the first inning of an MLB game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on May 9, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Aaron Nola #27 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch in the first inning of an MLB game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on May 9, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images/TNS)

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For a time this winter, the Braves tried convincing Aaron Nola to swap that “P” for an “A.” But the Louisiana native instead remains their adversary in the increasingly fierce Braves-Phillies rivalry.

Needing rotation upgrades, the Braves pursued Nola, the Phillies’ co-ace, in free agency before he re-signed with the franchise that raised him.

“(The Braves) had interest,” Nola told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The business part of free agency, a lot of teams are looking for pitching. ... It’s part of the process, going through it and talking to teams. They were interested.

“It would’ve been weird to wear a (different uniform), being with one team your whole career then having something else on your chest. It would’ve definitely felt weird.”

There are obvious reasons the Braves were intrigued: Nola is only 30 years old, a beloved teammate and has proven himself in two crucial areas, innings consumption and postseason performance. Nola was considered one of the top free-agent starters alongside Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Dodgers), Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery (both still free agents), and Sonny Gray (Cardinals).

Excluding Nola’s rookie season and the truncated 2020 campaign, the right-hander has pitched at least 168 innings in six of seven years. He’s logged three 200-inning seasons, along with two others exceeding 180. He’s had success against the Braves, too, posting a 3.40 ERA in 33 career outings against them.

“The guy is one of the elite competitors in the game,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said last September. “He can give up runs and still cover you seven or eight innings. He just never stops pitching, making his pitch. I have a lot of respect for that guy and how he goes about it. The durability, he’s always in late in the game, regardless of what the score is.”

Nola also has a 3.70 ERA over nine career postseason performances, which includes twice defeating the Braves. He allowed three runs (two earned) across 11⅔ innings in those starts.

So the Braves, requiring another starter to cover innings and certainly placing a premium on postseason performance, tried to woo Nola. The Braves are typically an easy sell given their organization’s reputation, especially with their recent sustained success. Nola knows Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz from his days as a Phillies coach (2016-18). Plus, Nola’s wife, Hunter Jayde Harrington, is from Jasper, and the couple had their wedding in Georgia.

Alas, Nola opted to remain with Philadelphia on a seven-year, $172 million deal and made it clear that was his preference all along.

“I knew the Braves were going to be in that mix (to sign him),” Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott told the AJC. “But having him back, and that being the first thing the front office wanted to do, speaks to him as a player and him as a person, and what he means to the clubhouse.

“There’s no better person in the clubhouse. He’s a really good pitcher but a better person. You might get the best pitcher of all time, but if he doesn’t mesh in the clubhouse, it’s a weird situation. He’s one of the best pitchers in the league and he respects everyone and everyone respects him. It’s really big for him to be back.”

The details of the Braves’ pursuit aren’t known, but one person familiar with the talks told the AJC in December that the Braves were a finalist to sign him. ESPN insider Jeff Passan described the Braves as “a real threat to poach” Nola after the player had re-signed.

If the Braves were indeed competitive in the Nola market, it speaks volumes of how they viewed him. Under president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves haven’t engaged in many bidding wars for premier free agents. They’ve saved much of their spending for retaining in-house talents, which has taken their payroll to unprecedented levels. The team has only signed three free agents to contracts of three or more years: lefty Will Smith (3/$40M); outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who’d just completed a one-year deal (4/$65M); and right-hander Reynaldo Lopez (3/$30M).

The AJC asked Nola if there was a point he felt he might’ve signed with the Braves. He didn’t directly answer, just reiterating his priority was remaining with the Phillies.

“It’s part of free agency where you have to exercise it; there were no guarantees that Philly was going to bring me back,” Nola said. “That’s the business part of the game. I wanted to be back here. It’s where I started my career and I wanted to finish it here. I’ve loved every minute of it, the relationships I’ve had with the players and coaches, everybody else. My wife has made good relationships with her friends and all the staff.

“It definitely would’ve been hard to part, for sure. But the reality of it was I was a free agent, and I wasn’t for sure with the team. But I’m grateful to be back here and to finish my career here. That was something important to us.”

Now, Nola’s Phillies will begin another attempt at usurping the Braves in the National League East, a division the latter has won in six consecutive seasons. The Phillies, though, have had the last laugh the past two Octobers after eliminating the Braves in the NL Division Series.

The Phillies had a quiet winter after retaining Nola, recently adding utilityman Whit Merrifield on a one-year, $8 million pact that was otherwise their most substantial signing. Nola’s co-ace Zack Wheeler (of Smyrna) is a free agent following the season, so the Phillies must navigate that situation as well.

“I love pitching with (Nola),” Wheeler told the AJC. “I love competing against him, friendly competition. He goes out there and shoves and I try to do one better and vice versa.”

After missing on Nola, the Braves acquired veteran lefty Chris Sale from the Red Sox in late December, then signed him to a two-year $38 million extension. Sale has drawn rave reviews early, but he hasn’t recently provided the same reliability as Nola. Sale pitched only 151 innings from 2020-23 due to injuries. He reported to Braves spring training feeling fully healthy, he said.

Like the Phillies with Wheeler, the Braves will be tasked with re-signing or replacing a rotation stalwart after the season. Co-ace Max Fried, 30, is set to hit free agency. Veteran Charlie Morton, 40, likewise has an expiring contract and has mulled retirement.

The Braves and Phillies will see each other soon. The Braves open the regular season in Philadelphia on March 28. If they’re healthy, Fried, Wheeler and Nola should all pitch in the series.

“It’s a respected rivalry between us and the Braves,” Nola said. “It’s definitely (heightened) just being matched up against each other in the NLDS the past two years. But it’s all fun.”