Phil Coke nestling in the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation is looking better and better.

It’s been bandied about for months, that the Tigers are about to pluck uber-reliever and southpaw Coke from the bullpen and plop him among the rotation that includes hard-throwers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello.

With this week’s free agent signing of Tampa’s Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers have essentially replaced Coke with one of the best set-up men in baseball last year.

That means Coke is free to join the rotation, which needs a lefty in the worst way.

Fortunately, making Coke a starter is doing it in anything but the worst way.

Coke was part of last off-season’s larceny that GM Dave Dombrowski committed, when he traded popular CF Curtis Granderson and enigmatic RHP Edwin Jackson and brought in Coke, CF Austin Jackson, RHP Scherzer, and LHP Daniel Schlereth.

You don’t need to wait the requisite several years to know that DD hit a home run with that deal.

All Coke did was appear in 74 games, pitch 64.2 innings, surrender just two home runs, post a fine 3.76 ERA, and stabilize the Tigers’ pen, especially in the season’s first half.

Coke was the most reliable reliever the Tigers had overall, so it was a little off-putting when the rumblings began that he might be moved to the rotation.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul, you might say.

But that all changes with the addition of Benoit, who in 2010 was as lights out as an army barracks after 10:00pm.

And if Joel Zumaya defies the odds and stays healthy next year, the bullpen will miss Coke even less.

This sort of thing usually works the other way around; it’s the traditional starter who will shift to relieving.

You’ve heard of Dennis Eckersley, Dave Righetti, Goose Gossage and John Smoltz?

All starters—and good ones—who became outstanding relief pitchers.

Coke started the Tigers’ final game last season, in Baltimore—his only big league start.

It didn’t go so well.

Coke lasted just 1.2 innings, coughing up five hits and two runs.

But that ought not to dissuade the Tigers from moving forward with the Coke Experiment, and it appears that it hasn’t.

Of course, Benoit is a righthander and Coke is a lefty. So who becomes the Tigers’ primary lefthander in the bullpen?

It could be Schlereth, a strikeout guy who has a world of potential.

It could be Fu-Te Ni, but Ni didn’t pitch for the Tigers after June 29.

It could even be Andy Oliver, should he not be traded or considered worthy of the fifth spot in the rotation.

But with Benoit, if he comes anywhere close to repeating his magical 2010 season, it might not matter if you have a consistent left-handed presence in the pen or not. It could be “lefty by committee” and that might be good enough—especially if Zumaya comes back strong.

Free agent pitchers traditionally make me squirm with uneasiness. Seems an awful lot of them go sideways as soon as the ink dries on their new contract.

Troy Percival, anyone?

Maybe Benoit, who survived surgery and missed the entire 2009 season recovering, has already had his physical calamity for his career. Maybe his terrific 2010 season is proof that he’s back and isn’t to be derailed.

The Tigers have 16.5 million reasons to hope so.

Meanwhile, Phil Coke as a starter is looking peanut butter and jelly-ish in its compatibility.

 

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