Luke Putkonen is probably the least interesting player on the Tigers' non-roster invitee list. While this seems harsh, it is largely because he is a familiar name to Tigers fans. Putkonen has been in the organization since 2007 and has pitched for the Tigers in each of the past three seasons. To put it bluntly, he's old news.
However, it's also because of a rather pedestrian profile. Putkonen is already 28 years old. He owns a 4.66 ERA and 4.31 FIP in 48 1/3 career major league innings. He is 27-35 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 575 minor league innings. He doesn't strike out an inordinate number of players, he doesn't throw 100 miles per hour, and he isn't left-handed. He fits the description of a replacement level reliever, and his stats back it up.
This doesn't mean that he can't be of value to the Tigers. Putkonen had a solid 2013 season, limiting opponents to a 3.03 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 29 2/3 innings. He had a 3.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 139 ERA+, and was worth 0.6 rWAR. Considering how bad the bullpen was last season -- only three of the 26 relief pitchers the Tigers used were worth 0.6 rWAR or more -- they would gladly take a repeat of 2013's numbers from Putkonen.
Where did he come from?
The Tigers selected Putkonen in the third round of the 2007 amateur draft. A two-year starter at the University of North Carolina, Putkonen put together a couple of solid seasons as a starter in the low levels of the Tigers' system. He allowed a 3.13 ERA and 3.43 FIP at Single-A West Michigan in 2009, then a 3.18 ERA and 3.95 FIP at Advanced-A Lakeland in 2010. After a poor start to the 2011 season in Double-A Erie, Putkonen was shifted to the bullpen while pitching back in Lakeland.
Putkonen made his major league debut on April 29th, 2012, shortly after beginning the season at Triple-A Toledo. He gave up a pair of runs to the New York Yankees in a 6-2 Tigers loss. Putkonen made a few more appearances for the Tigers in May, suffering a pair of losses while allowing an 8.59 ERA. He bounced between Toledo and Detroit for the rest of the year, allowing a 3.94 ERA at the major league level and a 4.92 ERA in the minors.
After Putkonen's aforementioned 2013 season -- he had a 1.91 ERA and 2.22 FIP in 37 2/3 innings at Toledo that year -- he made the Tigers' Opening Day roster in 2014. However, he only made two appearances before going on the disabled list with an elbow injury. The pain returned shortly after he began a rehab stint in Toledo, and Putkonen eventually had surgery to remove bone spurs in June. Already a veteran of Tommy John surgery in college, the lack of ligament damage was a good sign. However, he wasn't able to pitch without pain, and did not make it back to the majors before the end of the season.
Putkonen utilizes a mix of three pitches: a fastball, curveball, and splitter. His fastball averages 95 miles per hour and has a little tailing action to it, generating ground balls at a 52.6 percent clip in his small sample of major league innings. He throws it nearly two-thirds of the time, and almost exclusively when he gets behind in the count. The curveball is his primary off-speed pitch used against right-handers. It sits in the high 70s and induces whiffs at a solid 15 percent clip. He uses his splitter third most, though it doesn't cause as many swings and misses as you might think.
All three of Putkonen's pitches generate a high amount of weak contact, resulting in a career 52.9 percent ground ball rate. Left-handed batters have hit for a higher average against him in a limited sample, though righties have walked more and hit for more power. Putkonen has allowed six home runs in his MLB career, all against right-handers. However, his splits were more conventional in the minor leagues.
What should we expect from him?
Aside from one of the first basemen, Putkonen has the best chance of any non-roster invitee to crack the Tigers' Opening Day roster. He has had a little success at the MLB level in the past and the organization is familiar with his capabilities. However, with a minor league option remaining and no guaranteed spot on the 40-man roster, Putkonen will need to have a big spring to force his way onto the roster. He will pitch at the major league level at some point in 2015 if he's healthy, though it may not be until a little later in the year.