By Converting Phil Coke, Tigers Making Smart Money Decision

The Tigers decided at the end of the season that left handed reliever Phil Coke would become left handed starter Phil Coke next year. In doing so, the Tigers are hoping they have filled a major hole in the starting rotation.

During Dave Dombrowski’s “State of the Team” media session on the season’s final day, he stressed that the Tigers would not be in play for the top-tier free agent starters. In other words, Cliff Lee will not be coming to Motown, at least not in the home whites. Yesterday, word came down that the Dodgers had extended Ted Lilly,  and now the free agent market for southpaws looks thin.

How thin? According to MLBTradeRumors, the list of potentially available lefties consists of names like Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, and Jorge de la Rosa. A nice list if this was, say, 2007. Francis hasn’t been able to stay healthy for better than two years, neither has Bedard, and de la Rosa is a Type-A guy who walks far too many batters, not exactly someone you’d like to surrender a draft pick to get.

The Tigers, and most of their fans, feel it’s important to have a quality left hander in the rotation. Potentially, Coke gives them a dependable arm with the ability to retire right handers and lefties alike. He probably won’t ever become an ace, but he needs only to become a reliable number four.

Of course, taking Coke out of the bullpen leaves a hole in the back end. The in-house candidates to replace Coke in the set-up role aren’t exactly inspiring. I don’t anticipate Brad Thomas being brought back, frankly it was an upset that he stayed on the roster for the entire season, and even if his is back, he won’t be used to protect a late lead. Fu-Te Ni was outstanding in 2009, but terrible in 2010. Only Daniel Schlereth showed some promise as a potential replacement for Coke.

If the Tigers stick to their plan, as Dombrowski and Jim Leyland have alluded, they will be in the market for veteran relief arms. It is much more likely that they will be able to attract a free agent reliever for a reasonable salary than a starter. One more reason that moving Coke into the rotation makes sense.

Again, using the list compiled by MLBTR, you can find a handful of names that would provide a reasonable facsimile of what Coke gave the Tigers in 2010. Chief among the Tigers potential targets should be Pedro Feliciano and Will Ohman. Feliciano has lead the National League in appearances in each of the past three years. He’s a classic LOOGy, often appearing only to face one batter. In 92 games this year, Feliciano worked only 62.2 innings. He’s devastating on left handers, holding them to a .211 average and .574 OPS. Versus righties, however, Feliciano allowed a .331 average and .847 OPS in 2010.

Ohman is another guy often used in one or two batter stints, but his splits are a bit more reasonable. Over his career, lefties have hit him at a .208 clip (.646 OPS) while right handed batter have hit .264 (.760 OPS).

Given the way Leyland likes to use his left handed relievers, having a guy like Ohman, who has shown the ability to retire right handed hitter well, would be the preferred route. If we were talking about a situation where a pitcher is brought in to face one hitter, perhaps you would prefer Feliciano, but Leyland rarely operates that way.

Whomever the Tigers decide to target, via free agent or trade, it’s an easy assumption that those players will make a fraction in salary of what they would have to pay to snare a left handed starter. The money they will save by moving Coke to the rotation and bringing in a replacement for the bullpen can then be allocated into upgrading the offense with a middle-of-the-order bat or two.

Tags: Cliff Lee Detroit Tigers Pedro Feliciano Phil Coke Ted Lilly Will Ohman

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