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Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Let’s Hope This Isn’t a Soup in Wolf’s Clothing

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Three years ago the Milwaukee Brewers staked a lot of money on a free-agent starting pitcher, giving right-hander Jeff Suppan a four-year, $42 million contract. The results have not been good; Suppan, who will make $12.5 million in 2010, is 29-34as a Brewer.

Now the Brewers, whose 2009 starting rotation had the worst earned-run average in the National League (5.37), are giving former Dodger left-hander Randy Wolf a three-year, $29.75 million deal. The accompanying chart shows how Wolf compares statistically with the Jeff Suppan of December 2006. At 33, Wolf is about a year older than Suppan was when he signed. Unlike Suppan, Wolf has undergone major elbow and shoulder surgery, although he has been healthy the last two years.

Will this $10 million-a-year pitcher work out better? The Observers weigh in.

Frank: The Brewers faced a big repair job, and they began by declining their 2010 option on one of this year’s starters.

Artie: That was Braden “Wow, There Goes Another Homer” Looper.

Frank: And there’s a strong chance that Suppan will become a very expensive version of Dave Burba.

Artie: Long relief and spot starts, the way Burba was in ’03 and ’04.

Frank: What’s more, it sounds like Dave Bush is none too sure of a spot in the rotation, either.

Artie: Fine by me. Bush had a good stretch at the end of ’08, but this year he got hurt and his ERA went above 6.

Frank: All of which means the Brewers still need to find two starters besides Wolf, Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra.

Artie: Wolf’s deal shows what a lack of top-flight pitching there is. His career stats are OK, but 10 million bucks a year?

Frank: Just what I said about Suppan three years ago. Of course he had three good years in St. Louis, including a terrific N.L. Championship Series against the Mets in ’06.

Artie: Plus the Brewers always saw Soup at his best. I remember we saw him win here as a Pirate in ’03, part of his 12-2 lifetime mark against Milwaukee.

Frank: Wolf’s no “Brewer killer,” just middling against the Crew, as our chart shows.

Artie: He’s a little better than middling in his overall stats, and he had a nice ’09 with L.A. But he ain’t CC Sabathia or Ben Sheets.

Frank: It shows how pitching stats have been diluted. I keep thinking of the “quality start,” which someone conjured up...

Artie: Probably Scott Boras, to make his clients look good, ain’a?

Frank: Pitch at least six innings and give up no more than three earned runs, and it’s “quality.” But that means “quality” could be an ERA of 4.50.

Artie: In other words, Suppan-esque—at least as of ’06. Soup has boiled over as a Brewer, from 4.62 in ’07 to 4.93 and then 5.29.

Frank: Speaking of Suppan-esque, Wolf’s 11-7 record this year almost matches Suppan’s with St. Louis in ’06. But Wolf’s record in ’08 with San Diego and Houston, 12-12, exactly matches Soup’s mark in his first year here.

Artie: I’m worried about the homers Wolf gives up. Twenty-four of ’em this year, 15 at Dodger Stadium, which is considered a pitchers’ park.

Frank: In ’08 he gave up 21 dingers and six were at Petco Park, another spacious place.

Artie: Not that he’s another Looper, who gave up 39 homers this year, but Wolf is reputed to be more of a fly-ball pitcher. And Miller Park is more hitter-friendly than L.A. or San Diego.

Frank: Our favorite baseball Web site, baseball-reference.com, shows that Wolf has given up eight homers in just 42 innings at Miller Park, and his career ERA there is 5.95.

Artie: That’s Looper-esque!

Frank: But I don’t think Wolf is any bigger gamble than the other free-agent pitchers who were available—even John Lackey, who’ll make bazillions coming off a year that was similar to Wolf’s—11-8 and 3.83.

Artie: Lackey was way out of the Brewers’ price range. As for guys like Jarrod Washburn, Doug Davis, Jason Marquis,

Brad Penny—none is head-and-shoulders above Wolf.

Frank: The free agents with the best career ERAs, like Tim Hudson, Rich Harden and Erik Bedard, were also the biggest injury risks. If Wolf stays healthy, wins 12 to 15 games and keeps his ERA at or below 4, he’ll justify his contract.

Artie: GM Doug Melvin can still add a starter with a trade, maybe dealing Corey Hart to the Mets for John Maine.

Frank: The new pitching coach, Rick Peterson, coached Maine in his 15-win season in ’07. But Maine missed most of this year with shoulder trouble.

Artie: Melvin also could bring in Mark Mulder, who had success in Oakland with Peterson. But Mulder has pitched only 12 innings in the big leagues since ’06 because of injuries.

Frank: More damaged goods entered the free-agent market Saturday when the Yankees declined to offer a 2010 contract to Chien-Ming Wang. But the Yanks did that mainly to lower the price of re-signing him.

Artie: For a while it seemed the Padres would “non-tender” a young righty I’d love to see here, Kevin Correia. They made a deal with him Saturday, but it’s just for one year, so maybe the Pads would still trade him.

Frank: Speaking of non-tenders, the Brewers let Seth McClung go but chose to keep Dave Bush in the pool for the rotation. He’s had his moments; once a year he flirts with a no-hitter.

Artie: I think it’ll be a cattle call in spring training for the back end of the rotation. Don’t forget the young lefty Chris Narveson or the recovering lefty, Chris Capuano.

Frank: Melvin committed another $7.5 million over two years to get LaTroy Hawkins as a setup man and emergency backup for Trevor Hoffman. I was surprised by Hawkins’ numbers with Houston this year (2.13 ERA in 65 games); he was a bust in ’08 with the Yankees (5.71 in 33 games).

Artie: Let’s hope he doesn’t turn into another David Riske, who got a three year, $13 million deal in December ’07 but pitched exactly one inning this year and had

“Tommy John” elbow surgery in June.

Frank: Melvin also picked up a 23-year old lefty from Cleveland, Chuck Lofgren, whom they want to move to the bullpen.

Artie: A second lefty in the pen with Mitch Stetter would be great. But it’s the $30 million lefty, Wolf, who has to show he’s a full meal, not another Soup course.

Rivalries Are Going Strong Frank: The Packers got credit for a 21-14 victory in Chicago, but is it possible the teams switched uniforms? This time the team with 13 penalties was not wearing gold helmets.

Artie: The Bears knew the Pack was the most penalized NFL team and figured that’s the key to their success. Smart tactic by Lovie Smith—just like the fourth-quarter challenge flag that was both slow and wrong, costing him two timeouts!

Frank: The Packers also got help from Jay Cutler’s wild inconsistency. And yet the Bears led 14-13 in the fourth quarter.

Artie: A weird game. The Pack started hot, then started sleepwalking. And Mason Crosby had another bad miss on a field goal.

Frank: There really is something to this Packer-Bear rivalry. As you would say, 10 times out of nine the games are highly competitive no matter what the records are.

Artie: Just like that basketball game Saturday in Madison. Marquette and Wisconsin always slug it out for 40 minutes.

Frank: UW’s 72-63 victory was welldeserved, but MU sure didn’t fold after being down by 17 points in the first half. Both teams played to their strengths, UW’s size and discipline and MU’s quickness and versatility.

Artie: One last thing from the weekend.

The early NFL game on CBS, opposite the Packers, involved the Vikings. And where was that game? In the Metrodome, where they’ve played EVERY GAME this year, I swear! It’s a league conspiracy to get Brett Favre to the Super Bowl. I can’t believe I’m the only one who sees this!

Frank: Believe it.