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The Pros and Cons of trading Randy Wolf

Two weeks into the offseason, a pattern is already starting to emerge for the Brewers: the club has been linked to many of the top available free agents, but is handicapped on all fronts (from their oh-so-cautious pursuit of Jose Reyes to their willingness to make Yuniesky Betancourt their everyday shortstop) by a supposed lack of payroll. Most estimates put the amount of money the club has to work with somewhere around $10 million, which probably won’t be enough to sign even Rafael Furcal once more pressing needs have been accounted for. In order to make a splash in the free agent market, it’s looking more and more likely that the club will have to shed payroll in some other way.

One interesting idea that is at least occasionally being thrown around among fans is the possibility of trading a starting pitcher, most likely Randy Wolf. Even if you (understandably) have reservations about trading away pitching in an effort to bring your team closer to the playoffs, you can see the thinking behind it: getting Wolf’s $9.5 million in remaining salary off the books could free up enough cash to allow the Crew to shore up the infield via free agency, where the potential benefits of a new shortstop or third baseman could (hopefully) outweigh the loss of Wolf. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the possibility of such a deal, starting with pros and cons and ending with an open call to all readers.

The case for holding on to Wolf:

Wolf has been nothing but an asset since signing a three-year deal in 2009, and his run-prevention skills aren’t something that will easily be replaced. Wolf has been right around league average or better for the last three seasons, posting an ERA+ of 106 last year after marks of 97 in 2010 and 121 in 2009.

In addition, Wolf’s contract has been an excellent deal for his employers, who have paid around $3.5M/WAR for the last two seasons (the average free agent contract costs around $5 million per win).  Much of this value is derived from Wolf’s durability, as he has thrown 210 innings in each of the last three seasons with no signs of being any worse for the wear.

The pitchers who would likely replace him (Wily Peralta or Mike Fiers) have thrown a total of two major league innings, and neither project to be any better than Wolf was. Doug Melvin knows better than anybody how hard it is to find a third or fourth starter when you really need one. (Do the names Braden Looper and Mike Burns ring a bell?)

The case for trading Wolf:

Wolf has pitched very well in Milwaukee, but his value is currently the highest it will ever be. Consider the following:  Wolf’s strikeout rate has declined in each of the last five years, dipping below six per nine in 2011, while his hit rate has been on a sharp upward trajectory. This, combined with the fact that he turned 35 last August, should give pause to anyone who is counting on Wolf to maintain his previous season’s numbers.

While his production probably won’t be replaced completely, potential replacements Mike Fiers and Wily Peralta have nothing left to prove in the minors, and it’s a good bet that at least one of them would fit nicely in the back end of a rotation if given the chance. If shedding Wolf’s $9.5M salary (as well as netting a cost-controlled player or two in the deal) gives the club the monetary freedom to add (at least) 3-4 wins worth of free agent infielder, giving a starting job to a capable, yet inexperienced young hurler is probably a risk worth taking.

As usual, the answer here lies somewhere in the middle. If the Brewers find an offer for Wolf that they like, shifting some of their resources towards improving the team’s infield could work very well, but throwing Wolf away for the sake of saving a few million dollars is foolish. What kind of offer the Brewers seek for Wolf is something of a moot point until it happens, and with all the dart-throwing and guesses involved, yours is as good as mine. Let’s leave this open: If you were Doug Melvin, would Wolf be available? What would it take to send him elsewhere?