Shortly after Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced the Phillies had chosen Aaron Nola with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 draft, dance music could be heard pulsing through the walls of the media conference room at Citizens Bank Park.
Oh, the Diamond Club area had been rented out for a high school prom, but it very easily could have been the Phillies’ executives celebrating a successful first-round pick in the draft.
Nola, a 6-foot-1 right-handed pitcher from LSU, is the first college pitcher taken by the Phillies in the first round since they took Joe Savery out of Rice University with the No. 19 pick in 2007. But that’s about where the comparisons end between the last two college pitchers drafted by the Phillies.
As the No. 7 pick, the scouting reports are unanimous in predicting Nola, 21, will be the first player out of the 2014 draft to make it to the big leagues. Given the Phillies’ success rate with high draft picks in the last decade (see the ugly details here), the decision to take a seasoned college player is a shift in strategy.
Nola should be ready quickly, scouting director Marti Wolever said.
“There is something to say about having now stuff and that’s what Aaron Nola has,” Wolever said. “Aaron Nola has now stuff. We don’t really have to project a lot because it’s already here.”
Nola’s best pitch is his fastball, Wolever said. It’s a pitch that ranges from 91 to 97-mph though it normally sits at 94-mph. Nola’s fastball has a natural sink, Wolever said, and his command of the pitch is what makes it special. Though he throws a curve and a changeup that also are slightly better than average, the fastball and his command make it top-quality pitch.
“The real selling point to me with Aaron Nola is the command of his fastball, which is well above average,” Wolever said. “He can command his fastball to both sides of the plate.”
Players with Nola’s big-time bona fides haven’t been available for the Phillies in the draft in a long time. Taking J.P. Crawford with the No. 16 overall pick last June was the earliest the team drafted since taking Gavin Floyd with the No. 4 pick in 2001.
And like with Floyd in 2001, the Phillies drafted a pitcher who was at the top of their board and a consensus “can’t miss” prospect. The difference is Nola is more mature and polished than any of the Phillies’ top picks in the last 14 or 15 years.
“Well, we had some other guys we obviously had interest in, but honestly during the course of the year we didn’t think those guys would get to us and they didn’t,” Wolever said. “But he did and he was the top guy on our college pitcher board.”
Nola pitched in the highly competitive SEC during his collegiate career and was the conference’s pitcher of the year for the past two seasons. He won the award this year by going 11-1 with a 1.47 ERA. In 116 1/3 innings, Nola piled up 134 strikeouts with just 27 walks. Over his last two seasons at LSU, Nola was 23-2 with a 1.52 ERA.
He finished his career at LSU with a 30-6 record, 2.09 ERA with 345 strikeouts in 332 innings.
The numbers are one thing. It’s the full package that most interested Wolever and the Phillies. Nola’s older brother Austin is in his third minor-league season in the Marlins system and Nola was chosen in the 22nd round by the Blue Jays after his senior year in high school.
Pitching at LSU instead of the minor leagues was an important decision for Nola, who says he really came into his own at the university.
“I have gotten so much better and matured more and gotten stronger mentally and physically coming to LSU,” Nola said during a conference call Thursday night.
That’s part of the reason why an overwhelming number of draft pundits believe Nola could be in the big leagues as early as 2015 or 2016. Wolever isn’t ready to put a timetable on the kid -- the Phils have to sign him first -- but admitted he believes Nola will advance through the system quickly once he gets his feet wet.
In fact, Wolever said Nola could begin his minor-league career pitching at High A Clearwater shortly after he signs a contract.
“I think we are very close, as a matter of fact,” Wolever said about how long it will take Nola to get to the big leagues. “I just spoke to him on the phone about 10 minutes ago. He is very excited to be here, thrilled to death. And he has a lot of information. He is a bright kid and has done a lot of homework on the Phillies and the organization. He is ready to go and ready to start his career.”
Nola said he would like to pitch this year, but wasn’t about to put a timetable on when he’ll take over a spot in the Phillies’ rotation. He said he expects to hear again from the Phillies as early as Thursday or Friday on contract negotiations.
Once that’s all settled, Nola will get to work.
“I am ecstatic. It is a surprise. I feel so grateful to get picked by an organization early on in the round. It means everything to me,” Nola said. “It has always been my dream that I could get in the draft. I am ready to head out and go wherever they send me.”