FORT MYERS, FLA. – Anthony Swarzak absolutely treasures his job on the Twins. He just hates having to do that job.
Swarzak is the grim reaper of the Twins bullpen, a walking triage priest giving last rites to ballgames that have turned bloody. His number should be 9-1-1, because if he’s in the game, the Twins have an emergency.
“It’s not my ideal situation,” the 28-year-old righthander said. “But if that’s what they want, I’ll do it again.”
He means he’ll be the Twins’ long reliever again, the pitcher assigned to pick up the pieces when Minnesota’s starter self-combusts. That hasn’t exactly been a rare occurrence the past couple of seasons, so Swarzak has plenty of practice — and plenty of success — in dealing with failure.
Swarzak appeared in 48 games last season, pitched a total of 96 innings and posted an ERA of 2.91, better than every pitcher on the staff except Glen Perkins, Caleb Thielbar and Michael Tonkin — and he pitched nearly as many innings as that trio combined. But of those four-dozen appearances, Swarzak was summoned into a game the Twins were leading only seven times. No wonder the Twins went 12-36 when his name was in the boxscore.
Same thing his entire career: Swarzak has pitched in relief 103 times, been handed only 18 leads to protect, and watched the Twins go 27-76 if he was involved.
No wonder, as the Twins prepare to break camp later this week, Swarzak is making a wish for the 2014 season: “I would love to pitch in winning ballgames,” he says earnestly. “That’s all I want.”
Well, that’s not exactly all. Given his druthers, Swarzak would be part of the starting rotation. “Always. I’ll always think of myself as a starter. I know I can throw 200 innings, no problem,” said the Twins’ second-round pick from 2004. “I told [pitching coach Rick Anderson], ‘If you want me to start tomorrow, I’ll throw nine innings. I’ll throw 100 pitches tomorrow. If you want me to spot-start or something, I’m ready. I’m always ready.’ ”
Trouble is, his track record from his first couple of seasons suggests he’s just as proficient as creating those messes as he is now at cleaning them up. Swarzak is 6-17 in 28 career starts, and his 5.79 ERA as a starter is more than two runs worse than his 3.51 mark in the bullpen. That’s why, when Terry Ryan suggested last fall that Swarzak would get another shot at the Twins rotation this spring, he didn’t count on that wish coming true. Sure enough, the Twins signed two free-agent starters, brought back Mike Pelfrey for a second year, and created a four-way competition for the lone available spot, a battle that didn’t include him.
“Had we not been able to go get some proven starters, [Swarzak] might have been in the competition,” assistant general manager Rob Antony said. “But when we brought those guys in, I don’t think we looked at it too much.”
Which is fine by Swarzak, it really is. He makes it clear that he would rather be in a major league bullpen than in the rotation at Class AAA, and he’s grateful to have established himself as a Twin. He just wishes Twins fans didn’t have good reason to turn off their TV sets when he comes into a game. And he figures that he might have proved something with his strong 2013 season.
“Hopefully, I’ve moved on from the long role and proven I can pitch in a little bigger situation, have a little more important role. I’d love that opportunity,” he said. “If I have to show that I can be trusted with a one-inning role, with pitching with a lead, I’m more than willing to do that.”
But he understands that managers and front offices are loathe to change something that works. Ron Gardenhire has hinted that he might call upon Swarzak in the seventh inning of a close game someday — but then praises Swarzak’s ability to pitch multiple innings at a moment’s notice. “Swarzie’s really good in that role. He’s been very good for us, he’s been resilient,” Gardenhire said. “If we put a starter in that role, I don’t know if he’ll be able to do that.”
Still, Swarzak is training as though he’ll have the ball in game-changing situations.
“Long relief was the perfect storm for me, because I could throw a lot of fastballs, really pound the strike zone so you don’t walk guys,” he said. “This year, I’d like to mix in a few more swing-and-misses, play with the corners a little bit more, so I’m not giving up so many hits. If you want to pitch the seventh or eighth [innings], you can’t give up baserunners, so that’s been my focus.”
That, and making sure the Twins know he’s happy to do anything they ask. Even if it’s trying to win for losing.