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Should the Detroit Tigers sign Phil Coke?

Veteran left-handed relief pitcher Phil Coke is still a free agent who could be signed to a minor league contract. Should the Tigers bring him back?

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Phil Coke has been both a fan favorite and one of the greatest sources of controversy on the Detroit Tigers’ roster for the past five seasons. From his famous "glove slam" when he closed out the 2012 ALCS against the New York Yankees, to sprinting in from the bullpen when called into the game, to the series-ending run allowed in the 10th inning as the Tigers were swept out of the 2012 World Series, memories of Phil Coke are ingrained in the minds of Tigers fans forever.

Coke is now a veteran of six baseball seasons, which finally made him eligible for free agency. He has been on the market looking for a major league contract, but so far has been unable to find one. Coke earned $1.9 million in 2014 in a reduced role with the Detroit bullpen. His former teammate, Joba Chamberlain, who played a much bigger role in the same bullpen, had to settle for a one year, $1 million contract plus incentives, a 60 percent cut in salary from 2014.

Coke would be delighted to get the same contract that Chamberlain received for an encore performance in Detroit, but that’s looking very unlikely. Being reduced to a left-handed relief specialist, Coke's value has plummeted to the point that almost any team could call up a minor league player to pitch just as effectively for half the salary. Coke is also out of minor league options, whereas a replacement level player like Blaine Hardy or Ian Krol can be moved back and forth from the minor leagues without clearing waivers.

Coke is now in the position of having to settle for a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. He would not have a guaranteed spot on a major league roster to start the season, nor a guaranteed major league salary. After six years of dutiful service, that is a harsh reality to swallow. At this point, it’s a matter of selecting a team where he would have the greatest chance at cracking the roster. A team that needs a left-handed relief pitcher.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers have a bullpen that is basically set, according to manager Brad Ausmus. All set, that is, with the exception of one position -- one relief pitcher, preferably a second left-hander to go with veteran Tom Gorzelanny, who appears to be a lock for one of the bullpen jobs entering spring training.

The candidates that the Tigers have in camp for the final bullpen job include Hardy, who surpassed Coke as the primary left hander in the bullpen last season, Krol, a 23-year-old pitcher trying to find his command that the Tigers are still very high on, and Kyle Ryan, who made his major league debut as a starting pitcher last season but will try out for a bullpen job this spring. If the Tigers don’t find a left-hander they like, they have right-handers Alex Wilson, who pitched well for the Boston Red Sox last year, Josh Zeid who was acquired from the Houston Astros, and Buck Farmer, who also made his MLB debut as a starter in 2014.

Hardy would appear to have the inside track on the final bullpen spot. After being called up in mid-June last summer, he was one of the more effective pitchers out of the Detroit bullpen, working 39 innings with a 2.54 ERA and allowing just one home run for the season. He held left handers to a .197 average with a 1.05 WHIP. Hardy faded down the stretch, giving up a 5.40 ERA in just five innings of work in September and October. His FIP of 3.49 and WHIP of 1.38 indicate a chance of regression, but he was clearly ahead of Coke in the pecking order as the season came to a close.

Krol struggled in his first season with Detroit. Only four relief pitchers in the American League who worked at least 30 innings had a higher FIP than Krol’s 5.18 in 2014, and only three had a rWAR worse than Krol’s -0.5. He is young, and he has options, but the team is not going to count on him in 2015.

Ryan has a total of 4 1/3 innings of experience working in a relief role in the major leagues. Farmer has three innings experience. Zeid posted a 6.97 ERA with a 6.33 FIP and 1.79 WHIP in 22 innings for the Astros last season. Wilson had a 1.91 ERA, 3.91 FIP, and 0.89 WHIP for the Red Sox, but he’s not a left-hander, which the Tigers would prefer to have.

The Tigers used a total of 26 pitchers in a relief role during the 2014 season, 12 of them for 10 innings or more. A year earlier, they used 17 relievers, 13 of them for at least 10 innings. In 2012, when they went to the World Series, they used 15 pitchers out of the bullpen, 11 of them for at least 10 innings. Even the Kansas City Royals used 20 relief pitchers in 2014, including a dozen for 10 innings or more. Teams use plenty of relief pitchers in the course of a 162 game season. That’s just a fact of life in the major leagues.

One thing that Coke has on his side is experience. Not just six years of riding the ups and downs of major league life, but he tied with Joe Nathan last season for second on the Tigers with 58 innings pitched. He also is a popular member of the team with players and coaches. His work ethic and enthusiasm are beyond question, and his outgoing personality is a hit with the fans and media. The question is: does he have a role to play on the Tigers in 2015?

If the Tigers want a left handed specialist, Coke hasn’t exactly been a shut down reliever in that role.

The Tigers aren’t going to give Coke, nor anyone else, a major league contract to pitch out of the bullpen in 2015. But they could, conceivably, sign him to a minor league contract that would pay him a major league salary only if he makes the team at some point during the season. Typically, a veteran player would receive a salary on such a contract that would pay at least $1 million, or double the major league minimum that another rookie call up would earn. Some contracts have an opt out clause that allows the player to elect free agency if they are not called up by a certain date, and there is a $100,000 retention bonus if he is still in camp one week before the season begins.

Coke still has his velocity, averaging 93.8 miles per hour on his fastball in 2014. The speed on his changeup and slider have also remained consistent. He brought his ERA back down to 3.88 last season, with an FIP of 3.98. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is a respectable 2.05, and his home run ratio of 0.78 was not atrocious. Of concern would be Coke’s consistently high WHIP, which was 1.53 in 2014. He has never gotten that number lower than 1.44 in his career. He puts men on base.

Another concern is Coke's platoon splits. Right-handed batters hit .333/.394/.476 against him in 2014, all but requiring that he be used strictly as a left handed specialist in order to be effective. There are very few pitchers who actually face more left-handers than right-handers, no matter their designated role, as we discussed here.

If the Tigers want a left handed specialist, Coke hasn’t exactly been a shut down reliever in that role, either. Left-handed batters hit .255/.310/.381 off him in 2014, and .238/.297/.352 for his career. Of the 333 pitchers who worked at least 20 innings against left-handed batters in 2014, Coke’s wOBA of .308 ranked 180th. That’s just one measure for just one season, but there is really no mystery at this point as to what Coke does or does not bring to the team.

Dave Dombrowski has been very noncommittal when asked about bring Coke back to Detroit. He has not ruled out the possibility, but reports indicate that there has been no contact between the Tigers and Coke's agent.  We’ve seen the upside and the downside of Phil Coke. He remains a free agent, who could probably be signed, at this point, to a low risk minor league contract.