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Phil Coke, and the Tigers' quest for back of the rotation answers

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I'll be taking a closer look at each of the nine themes to watch as spring training progresses. I'll start with the pitching questions.

This much we know: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello will spend spring training tuning up for the regular season, knowing their positions in the rotation are secure so long as they remain healthy.

This much we can assume: The Tigers are keeping a rotation spot warm for Jeremy Bonderman. So long as his arm strength is near to where it was before having surgery to deal with thoracic outlet syndrome in 2008, he's the fourth starter. Justin Verlander thinks he's fine. but February is the time of feel-good stories, so we'll see. Until proven otherwise, I think this is a safe assumption.

The fifth starter could be any of the following: Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Armando Galarraga, Eddie Bonine, Phil Coke or someone the Tigers trade for. I find that unlikely, but you can never rule these things out.

"You hope you have pretty good options"

manager Jim Leyland was quoted at MLB.com.

Well, you hope. But do they? It's tough to say. Every single pitcher competing for a rotation spot has done something pretty well in the past. Every single one of them has issues with their game. And several of them have dealt with injuries, leaving us absolutely no guess as to what will happen this season.

In other words, they're the ideal back-of-the-rotation candidates.

I'm going to use the projected FIP (using CHONE) from FanGraphs.com as a guide.

LHP Dontrelle Willis

CHONE laughs at the thought of Willis pitching. Willis admits he's terrible, and to deal with it he is refusing the Tigers' suggested treatment for possible psychological issues. Honestly, I'm just not going to waste much time on this one. I hope the Tigers don't either.

LHP Nate Robertson

Robertson started 2009 horrible and lost his place in the rotation. He had growth removed from his pitching elbow. He came back and pitched relatively well, then injured himself again and had surgery on his groin during the offseason. CHONE has him at a 4.81 FIP, which is actually an improvement over both 2008 and 2009. If healthy, he should do better than that. Maybe not greatly better. But I'd take a 4.50 ERA out of him.

LHP Phil Coke

Fangraphs' Dave Cameron does not like the idea of Coke starting and sees him more as a LOOGY, which is more or less how the Yankees used him. Of course the Yankees' starting pitching staff cost a fortune and Coke had no chance to crack it after starting in the minor leagues. Cameron didn't like Coke's splits in the majors. In the minors, Coke's splits looked a lot more like a starting pitcher. While it is true major league data should trump minor league numbers, I think it's a bit premature to rule out Coke as a starter. CHONE's expectations are a 4.16 FIP and the best K/BB ratio of the bunch.

RHP Armando Galarraga

Galarraga wowed the fans with a deceiving 3.73 ERA in his first season with the Tigers. He kept it up for the first month of the 2009 season. Then it all fell apart. With rather mundane peripherals and an unsustainably low batting average on balls in play in 2008, a step back was a given. But he took about three steps back and never again looked like a viable starter after April. CHONE thinks this is a likely scenario for 2010 and issues a 5.01 FIP.

RHP Eddie Bonine

Bonine might be the underdog-of-choice for some fans. He stepped up several times as a spot starter for the Tigers in big games. You might remember the story of traveling across the country to spring training with his mother, who was dying of cancer at the time and has since died. Or maybe you just like the Mohawk. CHONE, however, has no place for tugging at the heart strings (or Mohawks) and has him at a 5.04 FIP.

RHP Jeremy Bonderman

Bonderman tried a couple of times in 2009 to make a comeback but suffered from decreased velocity and control, giving his stats an ugly tint. If he continues to pitch like that, the Tigers are probably in deep, deep trouble, given the above projections. CHONE puts him at a 4.83 FIP (and an even-worse 5.10 ERA). I have to believe if he's healthy for the first time since 2007, he'll put up better numbers than that. Of course, counting on Bonderman being healthy might be the same as counting on Joel Zumaya being healthy, or counting on Carlos Guillen being healthy.

Conclusion

Anyone who is too high on the Tigers' rotation should probably be selling right now. Because after the first three -- all of whom also have a few questions after career highs in innings -- it gets a bit frightening.

But how bad is it really? It's hard to say what an average fourth or fifth starter actually looks like in the American League. An article at Hardball Times by Jeff Sackmann in 2007 (note: anything more recent, please tell me in the comments) found the average ERA of a fourth starter to be 4.82 and the fifth starter to be 4.96. Obviously, these numbers would vary from year to year. But it seems to be intuitively correct. An average starting pitcher in the MLB should be considered the third starter. Below-average pitchers will be fourth or fifth starters.

The Tigers will likely be like every other team. Some pitchers will perform better than expectations. Some will perform worse. The tough task will be figuring out which of the above six guys falls into which category. If Dave Dombrowski, Leyland and staff do that well, the Tigers should be around average, anyway.

Still, it's not a pretty picture, is it?

So the Tigers really must see what Coke can do. Not only is he left-handed, not only does that open up a spot in the bullpen, but he appears to be the best hope. Maybe he is a LOOGY. But what if he isn't?

What have they really got to lose in finding out?