Left-hander Phil Coke has become one of the Tigers' most valuable pitchers in his relief role. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News) )
Detroit -- When the trade was made, that's when it was first speculated about Phil Coke's role.
Could he start?
"I wouldn't be surprised if he got that opportunity," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said at the time.
Then again during TigerFest -- way back in January -- there were more questions. And all the way into spring training.
What was going to be the best role for Phil Coke, starting or relieving? There were pluses for both. Reasons to think he could do both.
There still are.
Coke has done both, after all. In 2008, the first year he reached the majors with the Yankees, Coke was 9-4 with a 2.51 ERA at Double-A Trenton, with 20 of his 23 appearances being starts.
So the question was posed the other day to manager Jim Leyland: Because Coke has maintained his velocity so well this season, and is even throwing harder than the Tigers might have been thought he would, what's his best role going forward?
Leyland said he didn't know.
This was one of those days the manager was on the couch before the game, not in his chair by the desk. That's neither here nor there except the conversations, in addition to being more casual when Leyland is on the couch, often are farther ranging.
And because they are, out of the blue came the topic of Coke.
Now let's establish one thing about Phil Coke. He's not a cookie-cutter personality. In five different moments, he can be funny, challenging, engaging, standoffish and, uh, unusual. What you see isn't half of what you get.
He has been an outstanding addition to the clubhouse because of the teammate he is, however. But more than that -- far more than that as far as the public is concerned -- he has been an outstanding addition to the pitching staff.
The Tigers knew they were getting an excellent arm when Coke was included in the Austin Jackson-from-the-Yankees deal. But he has had a good enough year for it now to be known as the Jackson-and-Coke-from-the-Yankees deal.
Plus he's so loyal to the team he plays for that he's also everlastingly loyal to the fans who cheer for that team. There has not been a Tiger this year who has spent more quality time with fans near the screen behind the cage than Coke.
This past week, he spent at least a half-hour, maybe even closer to an hour, speaking to a group of five. And as enthusiastic as Coke can be when he's talking, you could tell they were enjoying the conversation.
But are there any reasons to think he could still start? He certainly has the arm -- and the willingness. Remember last spring when he was asked about starting and said, "I'd get on that horse and ride it as long as I can."
What about it, Jim Leyland?
"Great question," the Tigers' manager replied. "We talked about that the other day. I don't know the answer. I wish I did."
The Tigers might believe Coke could start -- and be right. But he seems perfectly situated in the Tigers' bullpen.
"He's really good," Leyland said. "I think he has the pitches to start, without question, but would they hold up starting? I don't know.
"But I also believe that if you think in your heart that you're risking health if you start him, then you should leave him where he's at -- because to have him four or five times a week is better than not having him at all.
"He's a very talented pitcher, though. He's a legitimate top-tier left-handed major-league relief pitcher right now. There are not many better than he is. I can tell you that right now."
And just did.
Miguel Cabrera has 27 intentional walks this year and, in just three seasons, will soon find himself on the Tigers' all-time Top 10 list of intentional walks (which can only be traced back to 1955). It's already a single-season high for any Tiger, though.
Detroit's all-time leaders:
Al Kaline, 133
Norm Cash, 109
Lou Whitaker, 79
Willie Horton, 78
Bill Freehan, 67
Cecil Fielder, 66
Dick McAuliffe, 54
Kirk Gibson, 50
Mickey Tettleton, 49
Alan Trammell, 48
Jim Northrup, 47
Miguel Cabrera, 47
By the numbers
Most intentional walks in a season:
120 -- Barry Bonds, major-league record, Giants, 2004
33 -- American League record (tie), John Olerud, Seattle, 1993, and Ted Williams, Boston, 1957
27 -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers record, 2010
10 -- Norm Cash, previous Tigers record, 1961
"I'm not ever going to be a general manager. I'm not smart enough. I couldn't deal with all those rules and regulations. I might lose half my team in the first week of the season on waivers."
-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland