There are numerous story lines for the Detroit Tigers this spring, as the team returns to exhibition action this week. One of the biggest talking points figures to be the bullpen, yet a player nobody is talking about is Phil Coke.
Back in 2012, Coke closed out the ALCS for the Tigers when the team was having closer problems, confidently navigating the ninth inning between left handed batters or right handed batters. Neither mattered, as Coke blew away the ALCS and ALDS competition striking out five without giving up a run. Through the World Series, he still held a respectable 2.70 ERA and figured to be in the mix at closer prior to last season.
After saving the first game of the season in 2013, things looked dramatically different for Coke. He couldn't get anyone out, and was struggling with control issues and home run problems during the year. An 0-5 record with an ugly 5.40 ERA was Coke's worst career totals, and strikeouts went down as walks went up. Many wondered if Coke still had what it took to play at the major league level.
As 2014 is set to begin, the Tigers bullpen has plenty of major question marks, but the biggest wild card is Coke. At his best, he's a lock-down option in innings six through eight capable of getting the game's best left handed hitters out while holding his own against right handers. At his worst, Coke is a run producing machine with erratic walk and home run potential.
With this in mind, Coke is the biggest unknown reliever on the team, more so than even Joba Chamberlain, who comes in after plenty of injury problems and struggles in New York, and bigger than Bruce Rondon, who has his own questions to answer. If Coke comes in and pitches half as well as he has in the past, the entire bullpen could feel the positive results and reap the rewards. There would be less pressure on Ian Krol to perform as Drew Smyly's lone replacement, and Detroit would gain an extra plus player to count on.
Plenty are talking about Joe Nathan, Detroit's new closer, as well as Chamberlain, Rondon, and Krol, yet many are overlooking Coke prematurely. Best of all, it seems he is getting his mind right, which for a pitcher can nearly do as much good as an arm slot adjustment. A healthy, confident Coke could do just as much for the bullpen as Rondon, Chamberlain or Krol.
Perhaps Coke sailing in under the radar is good news. Fewer expectations might yield better results. For the Tigers, that could be the best thing considering Coke's status as a major wild card in 2014.
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