As a reliever in his third year of arbitration, Coke was in position for an increase of his $1.85 million salary from this past season. Those financial ramifications -- paired with Coke's struggles to recapture his healthy, reliable form against left-handed hitters -- raised speculation the Tigers could non-tender him.
Considering Detroit's dearth of left-handed pitching -- especially in the bullpen if Drew Smyly moves back into the rotation -- and the going prices for free-agent lefties, plus the ability to cut ties with Coke in Spring Training for a fraction of the full salary if the Tigers change their minds, the club decided it was worth seeing whether the 31-year-old Coke can regain his old form.
Coke began the 2013 season sharing closer duties with Joaquin Benoit in a bullpen by committee, the same type of role in which he thrived during Detroit's 2012 run to the World Series. By the end of '13, Coke was briefly optioned to Triple-A Toledo to work on his pitching in a lower-pressure situation. He was then sidelined for the American League Division Series against Oakland during his recovery from forearm flexor and elbow tendinitis, and in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series, he was left warming up in the Fenway Park bullpen as David Ortiz's grand slam off Benoit tied the game in the eighth inning.
"Everybody knows that I want to be in the game, and I want to do everything I can to get the job done," Coke said before that series. "I didn't really have a phenomenal season this year, and that's all the more reason for me to want to get in these games and show that I'm not just a one-hit wonder. I really know what I'm doing. I have something to prove."
Coke went 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA in the regular season, allowing 23 earned runs on 43 hits over 38 1/3 innings, with 21 walks and 30 strikeouts. The more relevant statistics, however, are in the splits.
Left-handed hitters, whom Coke had owned for virtually his entire career, batted .299 against him in 2013, 48 points higher than his career mark. He actually fared better against right-handed batters, who hit .282 on the year.
If Coke is healthy, the Tigers like the left-hander's chances to better those numbers with help from pitching coach Jeff Jones. While the Tigers remake their bullpen this offseason -- from an expected free-agent-closer signing to a full-time role for hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon -- the left side of their bullpen might well look the same in 2014, including Smyly in a setup role if Detroit does not trade a starter.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.