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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to defend their three straight American League Central titles.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I’d like to buy the world a Coke

There’s been a lot of chatter lately that the Tigers should — some blogs have even put a timetable on the proposition, labeling it a “will” instead of a “should” — put Phil Coke back in the bullpen, and bring up one of two minor-league lefties, Andy Oliver or Charlie Furbush, to take his spot in the rotation.

I know that seems like a consensus move, but consider me one that doesn’t think that will cure all the Tigers’ ills.

Coke gave up just three hits on just 78 pitches through seven scoreless innings against the Red Sox Wednesday, matching his longest career outing. In his last start, against the Twins, he went just 5 2/3, but Leyland considered it an improvement from his three previous starts — two rocky outings against the Mariners and one against the Indians — after two stellar outings to begin his career as a starter.

The lefty went toe-to-toe with Kansas City’s Bruce Chen in his first start of the season on April 9, then got his only win of the season by outdueling the Athletics’ Gio Gonzalez on April 14.

To recap, as a starter, Coke’s had three really good outings, three pretty bad outings and two that fall somewhere in the middle. Not bad for a guy in his first year as a starter at the MLB level, right?

What’s to say that either Furbush or Oliver would do the same, or better?

Granted, both are tearing up the International League at Triple-A Toledo.

And granted, both are probably more integral to the Tigers’ long-term plans for the starting rotation than Coke.

But why make a move that — at best — would be a wash on one end to incompletely fix a problem on the other. Coke was stellar out of the bullpen last year as a situational lefty, but that’s not what the Tigers’ biggest need is right now.

They’ve struggled all year long to find a seventh-inning guy (remember, that was supposed to be Joel Zumaya’s job, if he was healthy), and now high-priced free agent Joaquin Benoit has had to be moved out of the set-up role because of some inexplicable ineffectiveness.

And I’m not sure that you plug a lefty like Coke — who has an ERA of 1.83 and a batting average against of .172 against lefties, but is just 5.28/.287 against right-handed hitters — into a situation where lefty-righty matchups are at a premium.

Could it be a short-term patch? Sure.

Maybe you get two or three weeks out of it, and then Benoit magically gets his head right, and everything goes back to normal. The Tigers have 16.5 million reasons to hope that happens.

But do you really want to risk retarding the development of Furbush or Oliver — and possibly even Coke — as a starter to make that happen? Is it better to need Coke as a mop-up guy in the fourth inning, because of a confidence-crushing blowup by a rookie, than to hope that your starters — who’ve all done a pretty good job of it recently, by the way — go deep enough in the game to get it to closer Jose Valverde at the back end of the ‘pen?

If the long-term plan is to have Coke go back to the bullpen — i.e. he was just a stopgap for this year’s rotation — then you don’t worry about that part, and you only have to decide if one of the two youngsters is ready.

But that’s not what the Tigers have said they envisioned, when they asked for Coke to be included in the package from the Yankees in the three-team trade two offseasons ago. They saw an eventual starter, who could be a bullpen guy for now.

And, let’s face it: The bullpen, while maddeningly inconsistent, is not the Tigers’ ONLY problem.

The offense has been, at best, spotty.

The Tigers’ starters wouldn’t have to chew their fingernails when they turn a slim, one-run lead over to the set-up guys, if they’d gotten a bit more run support.

If the Tigers look to swing a trade in the next month or so, it could be for another bullpen arm — one better suited to the setup role than Coke — but it’s more likely to be a bat that ensures that you don’t have to use a bullpen arm to safeguard a 3-1 lead, simply by helping make it a 5-1 lead.

As they’re currently set up — and with current performance — the Tigers are admittedly incomplete. But making one paper switch to put Coke in the bullpen does not put the last puzzle piece in place.

It merely moves a puzzle piece from one hole to another.

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