In December, Wisconsin news tends to be dominated by two things: the weather, and the Green Bay Packers. This week’s blizzard (which residents greeted with their standard mix of stoicism and whimsy) was definitely the lead story, but the latest Packer news was pushed below the sports page fold when the Brewers shelled out $30 million over three years for oft-injured starter Randy Wolf, and $7.5 million over two years for veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins.

It’s no surprise that the Brewers GM Doug Melvin went shopping for pitching. Their fall from playoff grace was caused primarily by the worst starting rotation in the league-despite the presence of wunderkind Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee starters posted the league’s lowest aggregate SNLVAR and worst ERA. Wolf was signed to replace Braden Looper, who unsurprisingly imploded shortly after moving outside the range of Dave Duncan‘s magical field, while Hawkins is essentially replacing Mark DiFelice, a likable and effective ROOGY who will miss the upcoming season after having had shoulder surgery. Coming off superlative 2009 seasons, both Wolf and Hawkins are sure to be an improvement on the men they’re replacing, but they’re both expensive, long in the tooth, and Wolf especially has a long injury history.

Melvin’s quest to improve his club’s run prevention on a limited budget actually started last month when he swapped shortstop J.J. Hardy for Minnesota’s speedy center fielder Carlos Gomez. Hardy was coming off a bad year with the bat, and was seemingly made redundant by the emergence of top prospect Alcides Escobar, considered Hardy’s equal (at least) with the leather and no slouch at the plate. Swapping out Hardy for Gomez, who currently defines the term “good field, no hit,” would mean a defensive improvement over the aging incumbent, Mike Cameron, as well as a large payroll reduction at both positions.

The plan seemed clear: swap some expensive offense for cheap defense, use the savings to shore up the pitching staff, and when the runs saved on the mound and in the field outweigh the runs lost at the plate, Bob’s your uncle-but after the trade and this week’s signings has Milwaukee really improved, or are they spinning their wheels? To figure that out, we’ll need to get a handle on how much worse their offense and better their pitching and fielding are likely to be by comparing the production that the incumbents would have provided to that likely to be produced by the men Melvin has tapped to replace them.

To get some sense of how much the offense will sag and the defense will improve, we can use a few of Clay Davenport‘s metrics: Equivalent Runs (EqR), which determines the number of runs a player generates offensively, and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), which calculates the number of runs a player saves compared to an average fielder at his position. These are aggregate stats which increase with additional playing time, so to compare them I’ve prorated them to the values each player would produce in a season with 600 plate appearances over 150 games:

Milwaukee SS/CF Batting/Fielding Changes, 2009-2010
 2009 Player    Salary* EqR/600    FRAA/150  Total Runs
J.J. Hardy      $ 5.0M    60.6       10.5       71.1
Mike Cameron    $10.0M    86.9        6.0       92.9
Total           $15.0M   147.5       16.5      164.0

2010 Player     Salary  EqR/600    FRAA/150  Total Runs
Alcides Escobar $ 0.5M    73.9       -3.0       70.9
Carlos Gomez    $ 0.5M    59.2       25.5       84.7
Total           $ 1.0M   133.1       22.5      155.6

Change:        -$14.0M   -14.4 EqR   +6.0 FRAA  -8.4 Total Runs

*: Salaries are best guesses for arbitration raises or free-agent signing costs.

Each row is based on the player’s 2009 stats, which of course leads to lots of caveats. Hardy suffered a down year at the plate, so these numbers likely undervalue his 2010 production; conversely, Escobar’s -3 FRAA belies his considerable defensive reputation. Projecting the offensive contribution of young players like Escobar and Gomez, who might be expected to improve, is especially dicey. While I was comfortable accepting Escobar’s .310/.338/.378 line as a reasonable guess for 2010, I cheated a little with Gomez, combining his execrable 2009 numbers with his more respectable 2008 season to account for some growth.

Given all that, swapping out Hardy and Cameron for Escobar and Gomez results in a net loss of 14.4 runs on offense, a net gain of 6.0 runs on defense (mostly due to Gomez), for an aggregate loss of 8.4 runs. In exchange, the Brewers saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million to use during their next trip to the Mound Store. Thus to make the Brewers better in 2010, the pitchers brought in at that price would need to be at least 8.4 runs better than the ones they’ll be replacing:

Milwaukee Pitching Changes, 2009-2010
2009 Player     Salary    PRAA 
Braden Looper    N/A     -25.0       
Mark DiFelice    N/A       5.7       
Total            N/A     -19.3       

2010 Player     Salary    PRAA      PRAA(3-yr avg.)
Randy Wolf      $10.0M    14.5        0.7        
LaTroy Hawkins  $ 3.5M    14.1        9.8        
Total           $13.5M    28.6       10.5     

Change:        +$13.5M    47.9 PRAA  29.8 PRAA (3-yr avg.)

Nearly all of the savings from the Hardy/Gomez trade are used up by the addition of Wolf and Hawkins (DiFelice is still on the roster, and the $4 million of Looper loot coming off the books is assumed to go towards arbitration debts and/or Trevor Hoffman‘s raise), but the pitching upgrade seems to far outweigh the reduction in offense incurred to pay for it. As with the first chart, each player’s 2009 numbers are used to calculate the runs saved, this time using Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA), weighted to 200 innings for starters or 60 innings for relievers. Virtually anyone would be an upgrade on Looper’s -25.0 PRAA from last season, and if Wolf and Hawkins stay healthy and pitch as well as they did last year, they’ll prevent almost 50 additional runs for the Brewers in 2010. Combined with the 8.4 run loss associated with Gomez and Escobar, the net result of the trade and signings is about 40 runs, or a gain of four wins.

The problem with that assessment, of course, is the assumption that Wolf and Hawkins will repeat their 2009 performances. Even granting that Wolf has put his injury woes behind him and can be counted on for 200 innings, last year’s numbers were unlike anything he’s produced since 2002, while Hawkins hasn’t been this good since 2004. To account for some level of regression, the last column above calculates the PRAA for Wolf and Hawkins based on their aggregated performance from 2007-2009. This more appropriately pessimistic calculation reduces Wolf to an average pitcher and results in a net 29.8 run savings for the Brewers, about 20 runs (or two wins) less than the more optimistic result.

Either way, it looks as if Milwaukee set themselves up to succeed in this season’s free agent market by trading Hardy for Gomez, even when Hardy’s value was low. But could they have done even better? Here’s the same chart for two other starters that were available:

Milwaukee Free-Agent Starter Options
2010 Player     Salary    PRAA     PRAA(3-yr avg.)
Randy Wolf      $10.0M    14.5      0.7
Rich Harden     $10.0M    -1.7*    14.7*        
Jon Garland    <$10.0M     6.1      3.9  
Jason Marquis  <$10.0M    10.2      1.2

*: Harden's PRAA is prorated to 140 IP, all others prorated to 200 IP

Harden is of course a well-known injury risk, to the point that I calculated his PRAA for only 140 innings, so despite the obvious high upside it’s perhaps understandable that Doug Melvin didn’t want to spin that particular wheel. Garland and Marquis, however, are both several years younger and more durable than Wolf, and while their 2009 numbers don’t match Wolf’s they’ve outperformed him over a three-year span and would likely be somewhat cheaper.

The most common mistake when signing a free agent is to put too much stock in a player’s most recent season, especially if it smells like a career year. The fear with Wolf is exactly that-you can argue that he’s finally healthy and durable and has reached a new level of performance, but to do so you’ll have to just wave away his 120 painful innings in San Diego as recently as 2008, and all the injuries that came before it. It’s true that there’s a better chance for Wolf to have a big year than Garland or Marquis, to essentially pitch like a second starter, but it’s not a particularly good chance, and if you’re looking to catch some lightning, why not just sign Harden? Or if you really just need a reliable innings muncher, isn’t Garland your best bet?

Instead, it looks as though the Brewers tried to do a little of both, and might wind up getting less of either, and at a greater cost. As with the Hardy/Gomez trade, about which many asked whether Milwaukee could have gotten a better return, Doug Melvin’s master plan to improve the Brewers for 2010 is clearly a good one, but the jury is still out on the quality of its execution.

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Doug Melvin? (vs. Bob)
Note- it is correct in the article, but the blurb on the main page isn't.
As soon as I heard about the Wolf signing I also thought about Harden. When, a day later Harden signed a 1 yr 7.5 mil deal with Texas, I again thought Milw OVERPAID for Wolf. Now, I dont know, maybe Harden's wife is from Tex, or he's got a cattle ranch and wouldnt have played in Mil, but for the committment and $, I would take Harden for sure.
I think at least a PART of the Wolf signing is that without Geoff Jenkins anymore, they had no Brett Favre lookalike on the roster. Wolf comes close there.
Not buying -3.0 FRAA for Escobar. He only played 38 games last year, and that is too small of a sample size to place any real weight on the stats. If you're going to tweak the offensive stats for Gomez, you need to tweak the defensive stats for Escobar as well. I'd tack on an extra win for this tweak as well. That improves the Brewers to 85ish wins. Better but still not a playoff contender.
Randy Wolf's last couple of years are reminding me of Al Leiter. Lots of injuries and basically useless, then he has what looked like a career year in 1995. So off he goes to the Marlins (who I thought were suckers for signing him) -- and his career really takes off. Obviously, the Brewers are hoping for that too.
Wolf posted an xFIP of 4.29 in 2008 and 4.36 in 2007. Not like he was terrible the previous 2 years. I doubt they expect him to repeat his 2009, if they did he would be worth more than they spent on him.
Wolf pitched 190 innings in 2008 - were 120 of them painful - in Houston he was ok(he threw 102.2 innings in 2007)? His home/road splits in 2008 makes one think that Dodger stadium helped him (2.98 v. 5.76 - close in innings pitched), but that went away in 2009 (3.63 at home - 2.78 on the road). I think that he'll be solid over the next two years - I do think that Milwaukee overpaid him - he'd better hope that the infield defense is there to help him (his K::BB ratio is very good. It's the Hawkins signing that I don't like - he's older, and prone to swings in his results. For 7.5M per year I'd think that there are better (and cheaper solutions). Of the two signings, this is the one to complain about.
The Hawkins signing was $7.5M over two years, if that changes your opinion at all, but I assume it was just a typo.
DT has Wolf with -15 PRAA for his 120 inning stint in San Diego, although his xFIP isn't too bad there (4.24).
While I was comfortable accepting Escobar’s .310/.338/.378 line as a reasonable guess for 2010 Huh? PECOTA'S weighted mean for Escobar is 263/301/350. Oliver says 277/304/353. That's -20 or -25 compared to the average MLB shortstop. PECOTA has Escobar +8 FRAA for 2010, Oliver +4. And +25 FRAA for Gomez? His PECOTA page has +11, Oliver +3, UZR +7. He's good, but nowhere that good. Overall, my projections see a 58 run decline going from Hardy/Cameron to Escobar Gomez. That's a tall order for Wolf and Hawkins to make up. I project both Escobar and Gomez to have the same .287 wOBA in the batter's box. Hopefully the Brewers will avoid the temptation to put two sub .310 OBP in the 1-2 spots becuase "they are fast and make contact", and instead hide their bats at the bottom of the order. Gomez did hit mostly 8th for the Twins in 2009, while in 2008 he had 90 starts in #1 and 54 in #9. Escobar hit mostly #2 and sometimes #3 in the minors, but only had one start in the top of the order for the Brewers, the other 32 at 7-8-9. Unfortunately, you can only put one player at a time in the #9 spot in the lineup. How about Yovani Gallardo 7th, Alcides Escobar 8th and Carlos Gomez 9th?
Of course you might very well be right, Brian. I didn’t use PECOTA (which I believe is still 2009 projections on the site), I just used their actual 2009 DTs, which have Gomez at Rate2 of 117 (i.e., 17 runs above average per 100 games) and Escobar at Rate2 of 98. I think that’s high for Gomez and low for Escobar, so I just left that as a wash in aggregate. James projects Escobar at .288/.326/.377 with a .319 wOBA – it wouldn’t shock me if Oliver’s more pessimistic view is right, but I’d bet the over. Gomez, I’m less sanguine about. What does Oliver have Wolf/Hawkins saving vs. Looper/DiFelice? Do they make up those 58 runs?
Oliver projecting for 2010, Wolf +13 PRAA, Hawkins +5 Looper -7, DiFelice +10 Gain of 15
I think Wolf will be a monster in that division
Monster? Would that be a Werewolf?
Brewers picked up the Wolf Pack and the Zaunbies. Not sure there are any monster fan clubs left!