Tigers eye Coke for rotation spot

Tigers eye Coke as starter

DETROIT -- Add another contestant to the Tigers' fifth-starter competition. With the Tigers' bullpen now even deeper than before thanks to the signing of closer Jose Valverde, Detroit now has the depth to give Phil Coke a look.

Given that the Tigers currently don't have a left-handed pitcher slotted into their rotation, it could well be a long look.

"I think he'll get the ball with a chance to lengthen out in the spring," Dombrowski said of Coke on Tuesday, "and get a chance to compete for the fifth spot."

The move doesn't commit the Tigers to using Coke as a starter. Manager Jim Leyland and his staff can move Coke back to a relief role in Spring Training if they decide he's a better fit in the bullpen.

Still, it's the first time the Tigers have taken a step towards making Coke a starter again, which given their rotation situation means a lot.

The Tigers have toyed with the idea of making Coke into a starter ever since acquiring him from the Yankees in the Curtis Granderson trade last month. Though Coke spent the past year and a half in New York's bullpen, including a standout 2009 season as a lefty specialist and middle reliever, he came up through the Yankees farm system as a starter.

Coke's dominance in relief was more than many could have expected. Though he gave up a 4.50 ERA over 72 games in 2009, the 27-year-old allowed just a .209 batting average against from opposing hitters, giving up 44 hits over 60 innings. His damage came in large part from 10 home runs allowed out of that total.

Like many starters who convert to relief, Coke was able to throw his fastball with more velocity and life, while using his secondary pitches a little less.

Still, Coke had more than respectable stats during his time in Minor League rotations. He was 9-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 23 appearances, 20 of them starts, at Double-A Trenton in 2008 before he was promoted to the bullpen at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He struck out 115 batters over 118 1/3 Double-A innings, allowing 105 hits and 39 walks.

If Coke can come anywhere near his relief success or Minor League track record as a Major League starter, he could give a big boost to the back end of Detroit's rotation. Add in the fact that all four of the Tigers' current projected starters -- Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and Jeremy Bonderman -- are right-handed, and Coke could provide some much-valued balance.

Coke said immediately after the trade that he doesn't care whether he's starting or relieving, as long as he's pitching.

Coke becomes part of a handful of known contestants for that fifth spot, including Armando Galarraga, Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and Eddie Bonine. Valverde's addition makes it highly unlikely the Tigers would add any more starting pitching this offseason.

"If we did [add another player], it would not be a pitcher," Dombrowski said. "We feel very comfortable with our pitching right now. We have four starters who we think are set."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.