DETROIT -- The Tigers have been consistent in their stance that Phil Coke will be in their rotation. They've also been consistent in their stance that they don't need to make a big signing to replace him as the primary left-hander in their bullpen.
That's good news for young Daniel Schlereth, for whom consistency is going to be key.
If Schlereth can pick up where he left off from his late-season success in the bullpen last year, Detroit will have its left-handed specialist -- not just now, but potentially for years to come.
To Schlereth, though, last year is done. This spring, it's time for him to prove himself again.
"I think I did a few things to help myself, but that was last year," he said. "I mean, it seems like yesterday, but that year's done with and I just have to build off of this year and keep throwing well and see how it goes."
To ask Schlereth to completely replace Coke in the bullpen would be a bit much. By the season's stretch run, Coke wasn't simply a lefty specialist, he was Detroit's primary setup man, capable of retiring left- and right-handed batters in order to carry a lead to closer Jose Valverde in the ninth. But Coke also racked up a lot of innings in the process. Only Tampa Bay's Randy Choate and Oakland's Craig Breslow made more relief appearances among American League left-handers than Coke, who had 73.
That's where Schlereth comes in. He made 14 appearances after his mid-August recall from Triple-A Toledo. Take away his first outing upon his return, in which he allowed three runs on three hits while striking out four, and the numbers were encouraging -- 13 2/3 innings, 10 hits, two runs, 14 strikeouts. He allowed only one of his 10 inherited runners to score in that stretch. Despite eight walks, he threw 60 percent of his pitches for strikes.
The difference was his breaking ball, which he threw for better than 40 percent of his pitches according to fangraphs.com. It's a devastating pitch when he can locate it, not always for swings and misses, but simply bad contact for outs. Hitters swung at better than a third of the pitches he threw outside the strike zone, according to fangraphs, but made contact about 62 percent of the time in those situations. His deception made up for a drop in velocity.
"Towards the end, I was more like myself," Schlereth said. "Coming up in July or whenever, I was all right, but I knew I could do a lot better. I think I showed that a little bit [from August on]. I mean, I didn't really pitch that much, but the small amount I did [made a difference]."
It made a difference in the way team officials viewed him. It was more like the pitcher they hoped to have when they acquired him from Arizona in the Edwin Jackson trade a year ago. It was one reason why team president/CEO Dave Dombrowski didn't hesitate when asked at TigerFest who could fill that role.
"I think Daniel Schlereth can do that," Dombrowski said. "We liked what we saw last year. Now, he can do more than that. He can get righties and lefties. He's got a left-handed breaking ball and an above-average fastball. But he can get out anybody, really."
So, for that matter, can Detroit's other late-inning relievers. Joaquin Benoit's shutdown season with Tampa Bay last year included a .144 batting average and .491 OPS from left-handed hitters, who struggled to hit his splitter. Tigers hitters talked about it as a pitch you could know is coming and still not hit.
Left-handed hitters batted just .167 (13-for-78) against Ryan Perry, though his 11 walks to them left room for improvement with his command. Jose Valverde allowed a mere .165 average to left-handed hitters, and Joel Zumaya held lefty batters to a .215 (14-for-65) clip.
"So really, most likely in the eighth inning, you're not going to be using a situational lefty to come in," Dombrowski said. "You're going to have Benoit out there or Zumaya. And so those guys are coming in earlier to get to that point."
Depending on how manager Jim Leyland decides to play it, Detroit's bullpen could end up far from conventional in terms of lefty-righty usage. But they'll still need a lefty to step up in some big situations. And though Brad Thomas also returns to Detroit's bullpen, the Tigers see him as more of a long reliever and potential sixth starter.
That leaves Tigers prospects as the best competition for Schlereth, himself barely out of the prospect ranks. Charlie Furbush is coming off a tremendous 2010 season in which he ranked among the Minor League leaders in strikeouts, but his deceptiveness might play better in relief than in starting, especially given Detroit's starting depth.
Adam Wilk is another youngster to consider after 27 solid starts between Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie.
"You never can tell when a youngster can come up and all of a sudden fill that role," Dombrowski said.
Schlereth did that last summer. It wouldn't be sudden for him to hold onto it, but it would be the next step for the former first-round Draft pick.
"I just have to keep proving myself," Schlereth said, "and things will work out."