Where Would the Braves Be With Aaron Nola instead of Chris Sale and Reynaldo López?

The Atlanta Braves attempted to sign a big-dollar free agent last offseason and not landing him might have saved the 2024 season
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola reportedly spurned more money per season from the Atlanta Braves to return to Philly last offseason.
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola reportedly spurned more money per season from the Atlanta Braves to return to Philly last offseason. / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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The Atlanta Braves had a good offseason. 

Looking back at all the acquisitions the team made, both via free agency and trades, it’s easy to see the significant impacts several of those pitchers have made: Starting pitchers Reynaldo López (free agency) and Chris Sale (trade) have combined to go 9-2, with the Braves winning twelve of their seventeen starts on the season. 

But what if they weren’t on the team? 

Consider this: There was significant reporting about Atlanta’s interest in free agent starter Aaron Nola, who ultimately spurned the Braves (and more money per season) to return to the Philadelphia Phillies on a seven year, $172M deal on November 19th. 

The very next day, November 20th, is when Atlanta added Reynaldo López on a three year, $30M deal and then surprised everyone with the announcement it was to be a starter, not a reliever. The Braves continued adding pitching over the offseason, acquiring Chris Sale (and cash) from the Boston Red Sox on December 30th for infielder Vaughn Grissom. 

What if Atlanta had signed Nola? 

Let’s talk this out. For the record, we don’t know if Atlanta would have also pursued López or Sale after signing Nola, but from the timing of when López signed and the reported financial offer to Nola (which has not been confirmed by sources on Atlanta’s side), it’s possible the Braves would have stood pat after acquiring Nola. 

If you added Nola, Atlanta’s rotation looks like this to enter the season: 

Spencer Strider
Max Fried
Aaron Nola
Charlie Morton
Bryce Elder

The first difference, right away, is the status of Bryce Elder. Assuming no other additions - and remember, adding Nola would have put an estimated $27M salary on the books - then Elder’s making the Opening Day roster as the 5th starter out of camp. 

But what does Atlanta do when Strider goes down? 

Here’s the rotation after Strider’s injury:

Max Fried
Aaron Nola
Charlie Morton
Bryce Elder
AAA pitcher 

That fifth pitcher is probably one of the trio of Darius Vines, Allan Winans, or Dylan Dodd - all prospects that have shown promise but have also struggled at times in the majors. 

Speaking of struggles in the majors - Bryce Elder was optioned to AAA Gwinnett yesterday after his second seven-run outing of less than four innings in the month of May. If that still happened in this alternate timeline, how does Atlanta replace his starts and innings at the major league level? You’re looking at either two of that above trio being used or a promotion for one of top prospects AJ Smith-Shawver or Hurston Waldrep. 

Both prospects, while talented, are unknown quantities when it comes to starting every fifth day in the majors for a full season. Smith-Shawver pitched a combined 90 innings between the minors (62), majors (25.1), and postseason (2.2) in 2023. Assuming a fifty-inning increase from year to year, that’s about 140 innings available this season before workload concerns and decreased effectiveness come up. Waldrep has a longer track record of stacking innings, pitching a combined 131 innings between college and minor league action last season, but he also had only a combined 14.1 upper-minors innings entering 2024 and how quickly he could transition to facing Major League hitters is a complete unknown. 

When you look at Atlanta’s .614 winning percentage, the 3rd best mark in the National League and 6th-best in baseball, it’s been fueled by the offense of designated hitter Marcell Ozuna (who leads baseball in RBIs and is 2nd in homers) and the starting rotation’s 3.51 ERA (a top ten mark in MLB). Does that pitching staff replicate the same success with Nola and whatever minor leaguer is promoted versus Sale and López? It’s unlikely. 

Let's be clear: Adding Aaron Nola would have made this team better. But not adding him made this team deeper.

Again, it’s impossible to know if Atlanta would have pursued López or Sale after the signing of Nola, but the money could have worked out if Atlanta chose to do so. López has a reduced salary for 2024, only $4M, before it increases to $11M in 2025 and Sale’s $16M salary for this season is being carried entirely the Boston Red Sox before it goes up to $22M in 2025. The Braves, conversely, could shed over $44M in salaries for next season with the expiring contracts of Charlie Morton ($20M), Max Fried ($15M), A.J. Minter ($6.22M), and Adam Duvall ($3M). There’s additional flexibility to be had with the club options of Marcell Ozuna ($16M), Travis d’Arnaud ($8M), and Aaron Bummer ($7.25M). 

The financial math of carrying all three pitchers works out, if Atlanta wanted to do so, although it almost undoubtedly shuts the door on a return of Max Fried to the Braves in free agency.

But if President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos decided to stand pat after adding Nola, this team could have been in trouble. 

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Lindsay Crosby


Managing Editor for Braves Today and the 2023 IBWAA Prospects/Minors Writer of the Year. You can reach him at contact@bravestoday.com