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Wolf at the door?

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Sources across the interwebs have the Phillies in hot pursuit of their one-time stalwart lefty starter Randy Wolf. They aren't the only team reportedly in on Wolf--the Astros and Padres have been mentioned prominently, among others--but as Jayson Stark reports, "the Phillies amped up their pursuit this week by getting nearly every one of their top executives on the phone with him personally." (I can't tell for sure, but I think he was serious.)

So would Wolf: The Return be a good move for the team?

I have to admit, first of all, that I'm not entirely objective on Wolf. I've liked the guy since the Phils drafted him, and I well remember his first big-league start--I listened to it on the radio driving from Maryland, where I was living at the time, to a friend's house at the Jersey shore. This, of course, has zilch to do with his performance, but it was the first of five straight wins to start Wolf's career, and five seasons of mostly excellent work until the cumulative overuse of Terry Francona and Larry Bowa drove him to the DL, where he's taken up frequent residence since 2004.

A look at the trends over Wolf's last two seasons suggests that, given good health, there's reason to believe that Wolf can be a solid #3 or #4 starter for a contender in 2008. When he returned from a year on the shelf with the Phillies in late 2006, Wolf's strikeouts were down (6.99 per 9), his home runs were way, way up (13 in 56.2 IP), and he pitched to a career-worst 5.56 ERA in 12 starts, in only two of which he completed six innings. Always something of a fly ball pitcher, Wolf's groundball/flyball ratio was 0.85 that season--a dangerous pitching style in OFJOAB.

But in 18 starts during 2007, Wolf reversed all these tendencies. His K/9 rebounced to 8.24, his best figure since 2001, and home runs allowed dropped to 10 in 102.2 innings. The move from OFJOAB to Dodger Stadium surely helped here, but even in 40 road innings, Wolf allowed just five homers. Perhaps the most encouraging sign was that his groundball/flyball ratio essentially flipped, to 1.14. If Wolf can sustain that rate in Philadelphia over 30 starts, he's likely to top his career best 16 wins from 2003.

Of course, that's the big if. Durable early in his career, Wolf cracked the 200-inning mark three times in his first four full seasons. Since 2005, though, he's pitched a total of 239.2 innings. The injury that essentially halved Wolf's 2007 season was an unspecified shoulder problem; the pitcher said, "It's not that bad. It's just not right." Presumably the Phillies and the five or so other teams in hot pursuit of Wolf are fairly confident--but after Freddy Garcia, a little skepticism is warranted.

I'd love to see Wolf make a triumphant return to Philadelphia, pitching October innings for the team he came up with. The parameters of a deal evidently include one year for a low-ish base salary and big incentives; given other unpalatable options like five years for Kyle Lohse or four for Carlos Silva, that sounds to me like a risk worth taking.