February 12, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Tony Paul

Phil Coke is under most pressure in Tigers camp


Still ... in ... Detroit.

Fingers ... are ... frozen.

So let’s get right to some burning questions.

Q. Which Tiger is under the most pressure during spring training, which officially begins Friday when pitchers and catchers all are due in camp?

A. Oooh, an easy one right out of the gate.

That would be Phil Coke. And there’s not really a close second.

Coke has had a rather unsettling four-year career in Detroit. He’s been a starter. He’s been a reliever. He’s been a LOOGY. He’s been a closer — a season-saving one, actually, in the 2012 playoffs. He couldn’t get right-handed hitters out. Then he couldn’t left-handed hitters out. And then last year, he couldn’t get anybody out.

That’s why he’s in this predicament.

Many thought the Tigers would cut their losses over the offseason and not even offer the arbitration-eligible lefty a contract. But they did ... sort of. Coke got a $1.9 million contract, but it’s not guaranteed. That means the Tigers can cut him by mid-March and owe him only a sixth of that, as was the case when they sent Brennan Boesch packing last spring.

Jim Leyland really liked his stuff, but will new skipper Brad Ausmus be as enamored with a guy whose WHIP over the past two seasons has been an unsightly 1.657?

One thing that might be on Coke’s side: the Tigers’ bullpen depth, or lack thereof.

Q. About that bullpen? What are the Tigers’ fallback options?

A. They’re not that pretty, to be honest.

Now, look, nobody ever knows how a team’s bullpen is going to fare or hold up. It’s baseball’s biggest enigma — a bullpen can be great one year, and the same cast can be collectively crap the next.

This much we know: The Tigers have some good arms down there, starting with new closer Joe Nathan, who’s the least of their concerns, even at age 39. If healthy, Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque can be filthy, and given a chance, Luke Putkonen could be better than most Tigers’ fans seem to think. Joba Chamberlain still throws hard, but his command ... well, we’ll see (maybe those new specs will help, Ricky Vaughn-style). We know little about Ian Krol, other than he’s a lefty — which makes him a shoo-in to make the team.

The Tigers will keep seven relievers, and that’s six. Now you see why Coke could make the team by default.

If you’re thinking about outside help, Oliver Perez, Darren Oliver, Kevin Gregg, Mike Gonzalez and Pedro Feliciano are free agents — and a combined 182 years old.

Internally, there’s onetime prospect Casey Crosby, a lefty whose Tigers career is so on life support, the organization is tossing a Hail Mary by transitioning him to the bullpen. There’s always Jose Alvarez, and Kyle Lobstein, and Jose Ortega, and Evan Reed, and Jose Valdez. Bleh.

Now, one to watch will be Corey Knebel, a hard-throwing right-hander who is very close. But he’s much more likely to start at Double A and, if all goes well, join the Tigers in late May or early June.

Q. Position players aren’t required to report until Monday. But we’ve been asking Ausmus about his lineup plans all winter. So why stop now? What’s the lineup gonna look like?

A. Ausmus has been consistent here. He’s offered precisely zero hints. And he can be forgiven — since, you know, he hasn’t seen this team play a single game yet.

“I’m getting to know the personnel,” he told me in a phone conversation last week, before he flew from San Diego to Lakeland. “The lineup will work itself out in spring training, and it may continue to work itself out during the season.”

Now, that’s at least interesting — the lineup might not even be settled once the team breaks camp in late March.

There’s one reason for that. And his name is Nick Castellanos.

Castellanos can rake, everyone. But he’s also a rookie, who’s certainly going to benefit from tempered expectations, at least early in 2014.

That’s why the slugging third baseman is a good bet to be batting seventh or eighth when the Tigers open the season March 31 at home against the Royals. But if he holds his own on the diamond and after a month is batting, say, .270 with some pop, that could be the time Ausmus decides to try moving him up to sixth, or even fifth.

But for the opener, barring injuries, here’s what I envision: 1. Ian Kinsler (finally a legit leadoff man); 2. Andy Dirks/Rajai Davis (fans will gripe, but look at the splits); 3. Miguel Cabrera (’nuff said); 4. Victor Martinez (he proved in 2011 he can protect Miggy just fine); 5. Torii Hunter (he probably prefers second, but the need is here); 6. Austin Jackson (less pressure, more consistency); 7. Alex Avila (could swap with Jackson against a righty); 8. Castellanos; 9. Jose Iglesias.

Am I close, Brad?

“I have toyed with just about everything,” he said.

Q. Will Michigan thaw before Opening Day? And if not, how in the heck will the Tigers lay their spiffy new sod?

A. Fear not, Tigers fans. The Tigers and Royals won’t be opening the season on a sandlot.

Heather Nabozny, the Tigers head groundskeeper, told me back in November that the new grass will be installed as soon as the ground thaws — ideally, that’s the second week of March. Some years are better than others, though. Last year, Nabozny and Co. weren’t able to cut the grass until March 24.

At this rate — those darn chilling weather.com maps of Michigan make it look like you’ll be able to walk across Lake Michigan until June — March 24 would be a miracle.

There’s a contingency plan, of course. If the ground isn’t thawed in time, the grounds crew will bring in an army of ground heaters to speed up the process, allowing them to have the new grass in place for workout day March 30.

The Tigers are getting the new grass thanks to Mike Ilitch’s shrewd insistence that Comerica Park, and not just Michigan Stadium, be a part of the NHL’s Winter Classic festivities in December and January. Installing the ice rink in the middle of the diamond gave the Tigers an opportunity to tear up the old mismatched sod — its different shades, which fans took to comparing to Tetris, were the result of years of concert repairs — for new Kentucky bluegrass.

So, in short, yes, they’ll have grass.

The real question: Will we even be able to see it March 31, underneath all that snow?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta call my travel agent ...



Phil Coke is with the Tigers on a non-guaranteed contract. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News