Let's get this out of the way first: Randy Wolf is a good pitcher. In his career he's put up a 4.28 FIP and in the past three years he's been at 3.99, 4.17 and 3.96. He seems to have become a better pitcher in his late 20s and early 30s, which is nothing uncommon for a left-handed starter. In comparison, Jeff Suppan's career FIP is 4.85. There has really been no point in which Suppan has ever been as effective as Wolf.
Wolf has varied a lot as a pitcher throughout his career. He's averaged about 7 strikeouts to 3 walks per nine innings in his career, but that rate has jumped around-he's gone over 8 strikeouts per 9 at times and last year he was below 7 K/9, but he lowered his walk rate as well, resulting in the impressive 3.96 FIP.
You can find plenty of information about Wolf's stuff elsewhere, so I'll just touch on two things-- his fastball averages about 89 (which is just better than average for a lefty starter) and is very effective, Fangraphs pitch values show that it was 30 runs better than an average pitch last year, which is elite. His out pitch is a really slow curveball-if you thought Dave Bush's 70 mile per hour curve was slow, be prepared for Wolf to bring it around 66. That pitch was 9 runs above average last season.
Wolf does come with some durability concerns. He was quite durable early in his career and then had 4 straight years of some injury trouble with Philadelphia. He followed that up with seasons of 190 and 214 innings. So in terms of pitchers with durability concerns, he falls somewhere in between the Rich Harden/Ben Sheets/Erik Bedard class and the Durable Innings Eaters.
The risk in giving Suppan the contract he was given was that he would not remain effective over the course of his deal, and that risk was realized: after 1 year of decent performance, he has put up 2 years of approximately replacement-level production. That should not be a problem with Wolf. If he manages to average 180-200 innings over the next 3 seasons, he should easily justify the contract. In terms of personal preference, I would much rather gamble on a good pitcher remaining healthy than gamble on a durable pitcher remaining effective.
There's no doubt that the Brewers had to go above what Wolf's probable worth on the market to get him to come to Milwaukee. The Brewers decided that he was their man and went out of their way to get him. I personally have no problem with what they did. Expecting them to set a maximum seems pretty unrealistic to me. If you set your maximum at $9 million per year and Wolf's agent indicates that it will take $10 million, do you tell them no deal? Considering that sources said Jon Garland (who, like Suppan, has never really been a good pitcher) was the backup if Wolf didn't accept, I am glad they did what they did.
After saying what I said about Wolf's ability, I think he should be projected for something like a 4.20 ERA and 180 innings this year. Expecting him to repeat last year's performance of 214 innings and a 3.50 ERA is unrealistic-first the flaws of ERA, a team statistic that is vulnerable to chance, must be considered and beyond that there's Wolf's .250 BABIP allowed and high strand rate, which show that he did not deserve the ERA that he accumulated. Fortunately, paying a pitcher $10 million really only assumes his value to be a slightly above average pitcher. Average for a starter is around a 4.5 ERA. With the Wolf projection I mentioned earlier, he's worth around $10 million in free agent dollars. There's an upside there of his production last year, which makes him worth a bit more. There is an injury risk, as there is with any pitcher.
Giving any pitcher a 3-year deal is risky. But to win the Brewers need to be a little bit aggressive. If you project every starter on the market to account for their production and ability to stay healthy, you would probably conclude that Wolf is the second best pitcher on the free agent market right now. And he's now a Brewer. That's good news any way you look at it. There's a good chance that Wolf will not be worth $10 million in 2012, but that's a risk the Brewers are willing to take here to secure a pitching staff that they think can compete in the next two years while Prince Fielder is still under team control.
I definitely have some concerns about decisions the team has made this offseason-the other signing of today, Latroy Hawkins, included (which I'll have more on later)-but I do like this deal overall. There might have been other ways of improving the pitching staff, but I can definitely see why Doug Melvin chose to go in this direction. This pitching staff just got substantially better and the team did not have to give up a draft pick or a player to do it, and there are a few other interesting trading pieces (Corey Hart!) on the roster. I would rather the Brewers potentially risk spending $10 million on $5 million worth of production in 2012 than just throw in the towel and not make a move.