December 10, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Tony Paul: From the Winter Meetings

Tigers' Jim Leyland expects easy transition out of 'pen for Phil Coke

Phil Coke struck out 53 in 64 2/3 innings last season. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Lake Buena Vista, Fla.— When the Tigers made that megatrade at last year's Winter Meetings, perhaps the least-talked about player in the deal was Phil Coke.

Yet, in 2010, he proved one of the two most valuable members of the Tigers bullpen.

And in 2011, he'll, no doubt, be key again — though it'll be in the starting rotation.

"He's got good stuff. I think we'll have to tone him down a little bit. He's kind of a hyper guy," manager Jim Leyland said this week at baseball's Winter Meetings on Disney's compound. "I think as a starter, you'll see a little bit of a different personality than you saw as a reliever, probably. But this guy has got really good stuff, and he's got three pitches — three good pitches.

"I think the thing with him is, he's going to have to channel some of that adrenaline because he's pumped up. It's a little bit different coming out of the bullpen in the eighth inning with guys on second and third than it is starting the game."

Except for one start, a 45-pitch outing in the season finale against the Orioles not long after Leyland announced the club's intentions, Coke, 28, has been exclusively a reliever in his three years in the major leagues — and a workhorse reliever at that, with 146 games in 2009-10. He had some success starting in the minor leagues, though, and might've continued that role had the Yankees not been in need of left-handed help in their bullpen.

The Tigers even talked about using him as a starter the first year after they acquired him last December — "There was a lot of discussion about that," Leyland said — but in the end, decided to break him in to his new team and city with the role he was most used to. Plus, the Tigers were committed to giving left-hander Dontrelle Willis one more shot in the rotation in 2010.

That, obviously, didn't work out, so Coke was the most logical candidate for the job.

Leyland wouldn't estimate an innings total for Coke, though he expects him to make the transition, stamina-wise, with few issues.

"Sometimes it doesn't appear this way to you, because of the way Phil is built," Leyland said of the Coke, listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, "but he's in really good shape and is really strong. I don't think endurance is going to be a problem, once he's built up and back in spring training."

Coke finished with a 3.76 ERA in 2010, a number inflated by a late-season fade, in which he allowed 10 runs on 13 hits in seven innings. He had a 2.65 ERA as late as Sept. 9.

He was easily the Tigers' most effective and consistent left-hander out the bullpen that saw 2009 breakout performer, Fu-Te Ni, struggle and demoted to the minors. Brad Thomas was up and down. Daniel Schlereth struggled his first time up, then showed flashes of his potential during his second call-up.

That makes Schlereth the favorite to be the Tigers' No. 1 lefty in the bullpen, with Thomas, acclaimed minor leaguer Charlie Furbush and recently-signed John Bale among those vying to be the second. Not that the Tigers necessarily must have a second one — considering their new setup man, Joaquin Benoit, was nasty against both right-handers (.150) and left-handers (.144).

A bigger issue on who will be in the bullpen, though, is who won't be: Coke. And that's a big void, but apparently not a concern of the Tigers.

"No, I'm not worried about that," said Leyland, "but it will be a good topic for you guys if he doesn't work out as a starter. It will be a field day for you, and I can see that coming."

Zumaya's big season

Speaking of keys to the bullpen, Joel Zumaya is again a big one.

"That's huge for us," Leyland said. "If you look at it, you can make the case for a lot of teams with arms that they bring out of the bullpen. They talk about the Padres and the Giants. (But) if you are bringing in Benoit, Zumaya, (Ryan) Perry and (closer Jose) Valverde, that's pretty good. Arm-wise, we won't take a back seat to anybody."

Of course, that's including Zumaya, who's right (pitching) elbow, per the official word, is expected to be 100 percent healthy entering spring training.

Zumaya, 26, we all know, has been a heartbreaking story. Like a real-life Ricky Vaughn, he took baseball by storm in 2006, but has had one injury or surgery right after another ever since.

A sickening elbow injury last summer shut him down, after being stricken by serious shoulder injuries and a freak finger injury in previous seasons. No doubt, he might be running out of time to stay with the Tigers, who will tender him a contract for 2011. But it's doubtful they'd continue being believers with another extended trip to the disabled list.

"Without sounding sarcastic, he's been healthy in December but not in June, you know? And that's what we have got to get over," Leyland said. "He's fought so hard. My heart aches for the kid."

If Zumaya can stay healthy in 2011, it'll pay off, big-time, for the Tigers — but also financially for the 100-mph king. He's a free agent next winter.

Peralta's ranges

Leyland, this week, took exception to those who questioned Jhonny Peralta's ability at shortstop.

He said the Tigers always were confident Peralta, 28, could handle the position well, even before they acquired him from the Indians, who had moved him to third base.

"Peralta is not going to have the best range of any shortstop in the American League. However, his range his fine," Leyland said. "He's a very sure-handed guy, he's a very solid fundamental player, and he's a very accurate thrower with a very good arm. We are thrilled to have him.

"We are always looking for perfect players, and there are not that many perfect players. He's a real good fit for us."

The range the Tigers are more interested in regarding Peralta: 70-85. That's how many RBIs they're counting on, how many he's usually is good for.

Advice from Leyland

Leyland gave Midland's Terry Collins his first coaching job in the major leagues, on his staff in Pittsburgh. So he was thrilled that his good friend is getting another chance to manage, with the Mets, and was touched Collins chose to honor him by wearing his number, 10.

As for his advice to Collins, 51, a major league manager for the first time since 1999:

"I would tell him the same thing that I would tell any other manager: Don't worry about what you have to answer after the game. Manage the game and don't worry about what you're going to have to answer to afterward, because you won't manage good."

Easier said than done with that tenacious New York press.

Around the horn

Infielder Will Rhymes, the most wired Tiger, launched his new Web site, willrhymes.com, which has plenty for the fans — including his blog, photos, audio, video and baseball tips. Check it out.

Rhymes, 27, also is big into Twitter and Facebook.

… Leyland plans to keep hitting Miguel Cabrera fourth, even though some think he should be moved up to third — like the White Sox plan to do with their new big slugger, Adam Dunn.

Victor Martinez will bat third or fifth, and Magglio Ordonez the other one, if he comes back.

… The Yankees missing out of Carl Crawford is good news for three guys: former Tiger Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher. One might've been shipped out, probably Swisher.

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tpaul@detnews.com