Nola good as advertised in Double-A debut

Posted: August 08, 2014

READING - One start at Double A is all it takes to understand why the Phillies were thrilled to make Aaron Nola the No. 7 pick in the June draft. What he lacks in upside, he makes up for in certainty. And for an organization in desperate need of resupply, the 21-year-old righthander is a pitcher they can pencil into the No. 3 or No. 4 spot for 2016 without the projection required with many top prospects. As long as he stays healthy, Nola will have a home in a big-league rotation because he throws strikes, and he does it down in the zone.

The question isn't if. It's when. And that's where we should take a moment to pump the brakes a few times.

Yes, Nola made his Double-A debut last night only 2 months and a day after the Phillies drafted him. Yes, he looked much more polished than most Double A pitchers, throwing 47 of his 72 pitches for strikes while striking out four, walking one, and allowing six hits and one run in five innings to beat the Nationals' Harrisburg affiliate, 9-2. But you probably should not pencil him into your 2015 Opening Day rotation, for two simple - and often intertwined - reasons.

Caution and economics.

The Phillies have Nola on a once-every-6-days schedule. In college, he pitched once every 7 days. When he arrives in the major leagues, he will need to be ready to pitch once every 5 days. Thus far, Nola said, his body has had little problem adjusting.

"I've been on a 6-day rotation for about eight starts now, and I think they are going to gradually move me to a 5-day rotation," Nola said. "I'm OK with that. I'm ready for that."

Nola probably has four or five more starts left before the end of the minor league season. The Phillies are limiting him to five innings per start because of the 116 2/3 innings he logged in 16 starts for LSU from Feb. 14 to June 2. Counting his time at Class A Clearwater (2-3, 3.26), he now has logged 36 1/3 innings since being drafted. In other words, Nola is likely to spend at least the first couple months of next season in the minor leagues acclimating his body to pitching on 4 days' rest in a controlled environment.

While the Phillies will certainly have a need for him - Cole Hamels is the only healthy pitcher currently under contract for next season - their primary concern is to make sure Nola's body is ready to handle a spot in a major league rotation, especially since 2015 is shaping up to be another transitional (read: awful) year. Another factor is his service time: Keeping him in the minors for at least the first 2 or 3 months of 2015 would buy the Phillies an extra year of control and delay his first year of arbitration.

Nola said he hasn't really thought about the prospect of pitching in the majors next year, despite the obvious opportunity that exists.

"I'm kind of taking it day by day right now," he said. "I'm still in this season and focusing on my starts and finishing the season strong."

The Phillies didn't move Nola to Double A after eight outings because they are determined to rush him to the big leagues. They did it because Double A is where he belongs, which was obvious to anybody who watched him pitch last night. Nola consistently throws a low-90s fastball for strikes, which automatically puts him in the upper realm of Double A pitchers. The inability to do so is why Jesse Biddle was back in A-ball last night instead of watching from the dugout at First Energy Stadium (the lefty threw five hitless innings at Clearwater, it should be noted). The inability to do so is why so many prospects with better stuff than Nola's end up with an entry on Baseball-Reference.com and little else to show for their big-league careers.

That's not to say that Nola lacks stuff. Last night he showed two swing-and-miss pitches: a sliderish curve that he threw consistently for strikes, and a changeup that took him a few innings to find his feel. Neither are on the level of a Cole Hamels changeup or a Jose Fernandez curveball, but they are both big-league pitches that he can command. His four-seamer sat 92-93 mph, his two-seamer a tick below. His ceiling probably depends on how you project the development of those secondary pitches, particularly the command of the changeup.

But everything else about his game is polished. He works quick, throws his fastball to both sides of the plate, and shows a good feel for the game. He is a pitcher, not a thrower. And the Phillies are thrilled to have him.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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