Looking Back at the Randy Wolf Contract

Wolfie
AP Photo

As was reported yesterday, Randy Wolf was released by the Brewers, bringing an end to the 3 year, $29.75M deal they agreed to during the 2009-2010 Winter Meetings. I covered most of the immediate issues in the previous post, but I wanted to also take a look at Wolf’s tenure with the Brewers as a whole.

The Signing:

After the 2009 season, the Brewers were in a familiar situation: Their offense, led by a core of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, and Casey McGehee (Rickie Weeks was injured) was among the best in the National League, ranking 3rd out of 16 teams in OPS. However, the club was almost perennially doomed by their complete lack of quality starting pitching. In case you’ve successfully erased the season from your memory:

Rk Pos   Age ERA G IP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1 SP Braden Looper 34 5.22 34 194.2 79 1.490 10.4 1.8 3.0 4.6 1.56
2 SP Yovani Gallardo 23 3.73 30 185.2 110 1.314 7.3 1.0 4.6 9.9 2.17
3 SP Jeff Suppan 34 5.29 30 161.2 78 1.695 11.1 1.4 4.1 4.5 1.08
4 SP Manny Parra* 26 6.36 27 140.0 65 1.829 11.5 1.2 5.0 7.5 1.51
5 SP Dave Bush 29 6.38 22 114.1 65 1.469 10.3 1.5 2.9 7.0 2.41
7 RP Carlos Villanueva 25 5.34 64 96.0 77 1.427 9.6 1.2 3.3 7.8 2.37
11   Seth McClung 28 4.94 41 62.0 84 1.629 9.0 1.6 5.7 5.8 1.03
12   Mike Burns 30 5.75 15 51.2 72 1.490 10.5 1.7 3.0 6.8 2.29
13   Chris Narveson* 27 3.83 21 47.0 108 1.298 8.6 1.3 3.1 8.8 2.88
    Team Totals 29.4 4.83 162 1435.0 85 1.467 9.4 1.3 3.8 6.9 1.82
    Rank in 16 NL teams   15   12              

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/23/2012.

It’s scary to think that was only three years ago. Even if the Brewers held on to both Jeff Suppan and Chris Narveson, they would still need to acquire at least two major-league quality starters to have a chance at contending – twice as many as they currently had in their rotation. At the time, the trade market was relatively quiet, so the club’s only real option was to explore a free-agent class that was headlined by John Lackey and Randy Wolf. 
 
Lackey priced his way out of the Brewers’ plans pretty quickly, ultimately signing a six-year deal with Boston that has turned into a huge albatross. During the Winter Meetings, the Brewers began to close in on Wolf, though the Mets and Dodgers were still in the picture. However, Milwaukee was the only team willing to offer a 3 year deal, and they ultimately locked him up for $29.75M with a $10M option for 2013. Because the Dodgers declined to offer Wolf arbitration, the deal didn’t cost the Brewers a draft pick. 

Wolf as a Brewer:

 

Year Age Tm ERA G GS CG SHO IP BF ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2010 33 MIL 4.17 34 34 1 1 215.2 936 97 1.391 8.9 1.2 3.6 5.9 1.63
2011 34 MIL 3.69 33 33 0 0 212.1 903 107 1.319 9.1 1.0 2.8 5.7 2.03
2012 35 MIL 5.69 25 24 0 0 142.1 633 73 1.574 11.3 1.3 2.8 6.1 2.13
14 Yrs 4.19 371 366 13 9 2252.2 9637 100 1.339 8.8 1.1 3.2 7.0 2.19
162 Game Avg. 4.19 34 34 1 1 208 889 100 1.339 8.8 1.1 3.2 7.0 2.19

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/23/2012.

Wolf’s first year in Milwaukee wasn’t particularly impressive, especially to fans who expected him to replicate the 3.23 ERA he put up in Dodger Stadium the year before, but he was a huge upgrade over the various alternatives the Brewers had. Thanks to his migration to a less favorable home ballpark and some inevitable regression, Wolf saw his ERA – as well as most of his peripherals – worsen at a rate that was slightly disconcerting, but he still chipped in 215 league-average innings. According to Fangraphs, that was worth 0.8 WAR, which isn’t great until you remember that four-fifths (!!!) of Milwaukee’s 2009 rotation rated at least a full win in the red.

The second year of his deal went much better, both for Wolf and the Brewers. The lefty saw his walk and homerun rates fall dramatically (unfortunately, his strikeout numbers continued to decline as well), and he again enjoyed the benefits of a low BABIP – Wolf’s ERA was significantly lower than his FIP for the third straight year. For the second year in a row, Wolf led the Brewers in innings pitched, and made two starts in the postseason: An ugly seven run outing in Game 4 of the NLDS (the Brewers, obviously, went on to win Game 5), and a seven-inning, two-run gem that tied the NLCS at 2-2.

Going into the final year of Wolf’s contract, there was hope that he could continue to be an above-average fourth starter, but, as is wont to happen to pitchers in their mid-30s, the wheels just fell off. Wolf’s stuff remained intact, and his strikeout and walk rates actually improved, but all the favorable luck on hits he enjoyed over his first 2 years in Milwaukee turned sour, to the tune of a .340 BABIP and a 50% increase in HR/FB. Wolf’s ERA never dipped below 5.00 at any time this year, and in the middle of August, the Brewers gave up on him, releasing him and eating roughly $3.5 million – the remainder of his 2012 salary in addition to the $1.5M needed to buy out his 2013 option.

Conclusion:

At the time Wolf was signed, the Brewers’ rotation was in shambles, and the club badly needed to solidify their rotation, and had to do something if they had any hope of contending in the near future. Wolf was really the only pitcher available who could be a significant help (Read: “Maybe provide above-average innings”), and the Brewers had no choice but to pay $30M for him. Even at the time, the deal seemed excessive to many, but the alternative was another year of Braden Looper and Mike Burns.

Over the life of his contract, Wolf gave the Brewers one very good year (that happily coincided with the best season Milwaukee had seen in decades), one decent year, and one very below-average one. If it seems like the Brewers overpaid, it’s because they did – they ended up spending something like $12M per WAR over the life of the deal, which is roughly twice the estimated going rate for free agents. However, that doesn’t mean Wolf wasn’t an important asset for the first two years of his deal.

In the end, the two solid years Wolf put in were about what could have been expected of him going in to the deal. To get that production, the Brewers had to pay for three good ones, which is simply the nature of free agency, especially in a market like Milwaukee. The Wolf signing was far from a steal, but it was also absolutely nothing like the Jeff Suppan deal so many people are comparing it to. The Brewers have nothing to regret here.

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