When the Tigers acquired Phil Coke in a blockbuster three team trade that also brought Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, and Dan Schlereth, sending Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, Tiger GM Dave Dombrowski thought that he had a potential starting pitcher, while Jim Leyland needed a left handed reliever more at the time.
Coke spent the 2010 season, his first season with the Tigers, in the bullpen just as he had with the Yankees the prior season. He had been a starting pitcher in the Yankee organization after being a 26th round draft pick in 2002, but was called up to the majors when they needed a left hander for the bullpen. He led the Yankees in appearances with 72, and did the same for the Tigers, appearing in 74 games in 2010.
In 2011, the Tigers decided to see if Coke’s full potential could be realized by moving him to the rotation to start the season. That plan didn't work, as Coke went 1-7 with a 4.82 ERA and a WHIP of 1.49. After 14 starts, he was moved back to the bullpen where he did somewhat better in 34 relief appearances, posting an ERA of 3.71 and a WHIP of 1.38.
In the three seasons prior to the 2013 season, Coke has not been particularly effective overall. He had an ERA of 4.52, a WHIP of 1.55, and allowed opponents to hit .294/.358/.420/.778 in that span. He was better against left-handed hitters, allowing a line of .250/.310/.349/.659. Against right-handers, he allowed an atrocious line of .327/.394/.475/.870. No pitcher should be used in situations where he allows almost a .400 on base percentage. In each season, he would reel off streaks of eight to ten games or more without allowing an earned run.
Coke’s highlight with the Tigers came during some late season heroics in 2012, being used for late inning duty when both Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit were being shelled. Coke managed to throw 10.2 critical playoff innings, allowing a single run on six hits, two walks and striking out 13. In the process he saved two games including the ALCS clincher against his former team, the Yankees, which featured the famous glove slam heard round the world.
In 2013, the wheels came completely off the wagon. Being thought of as a possible closer when the season opened, he struggled out of the gate and was soon moved to set up man, then to lefty specialist, before being sent to the minors for the last ten days of August, to be recalled just in time to automatically qualify for the post season roster, if healthy.
Coke’s numbers for the 2013 season are not attractive. In 49 games, he allowed an overall average of .290 with an OBP of .370 and an OPS of .809. He was ineffective against both right handers, who hit .282/.395/.465/.860, and lefties who hit .299/.345/.416/.760 against him.
The Tigers, struggling to find left handed relief, had hoped they could put Coke on the post season roster, but he had soreness in his elbow which kept him sidelined for the ALDS. He was activated for the ALCS, and was forced to watch the towering bullpen inferno that saw five different Tiger relief pitchers allow five earned runs in succession, the big blast being a grand slam by David Ortiz.
Coke had owned Big Papi, who was just 2-for-18 with no home runs against him, but he watched as Joaquin Benoit served up the game tying granny gopher on a vulcan changeup that didn't change. Coke was summoned to get Ortiz a couple of times before the series ended, and was allowed to face Jacoby Ellsbury who was one for eleven in his career off Coke. Ellsbury got a base hit and scored a run, while he retired Ortiz the two times he faced him.
By the time the 2013 season came to an end, the Tigers desperately seeking a second left handed reliever and needing bullpen help in general, Coke was not even a LOOGY. He was more of an OOOGY, only able to face David Ortiz.
After five seasons in the major leagues, Phil Coke is eligible for arbitration one more time. He earned a salary of $1.85 million in 2013 and stands to get a raise to more than $ 2 million for 2014, perhaps up to 2.5 million if the Tigers choose to offer him a contract by December 2nd. He is also out of options, so he'd likely be either on the team or released by opening day.
The club could choose to non tender Coke just as they did in the cases of Dan Schlereth and Ryan Raburn last year, making them unrestricted free agents. They could also sign him to a non-guaranteed one year contract as they did with Brennan Boesch, and invite him to spring training, being obligated to pay only one sixth of his salary if they release him at least fifteen days prior to the start of the season.
Dave Dombrowski has made a point of saying that he likes Coke's stuff. But when he struggled last year, Jim Leyland was very candid in saying that Coke was just throwing the ball in a very bad location and he wasn't much use doing that.
The need for left-handed relievers is pretty obvious, and the Tigers would be ill-advised to break camp relying on just what they’ve got in the organization such as Coke and Jose Alvarez. Whether Coke is in the mix remains to be seen. It's very possible that he won’t be.