It's a thankless job, being a long reliever. Not good enough over multiple innings to start and not good enough to come out and mow down the opposition over short appearances, long relief still requires of a pitcher a set of skills that aren't always easily found. He needs to be able to pitch more often than a starting pitcher, he needs to be ready to throw multiple innings without the mental preparation that goes with being a starting pitcher, in spite of "not being good enough" to start or be a middle reliever he still has to be effective, and it's a job that is mostly only required when the team is behind.
In fact, I just ran the numbers. Through 37 appearances this year (not counting his one start), the Twins were behind in 23 games when Swarzak took the hill. Three of the remaining 14 appearances were a tie.
It's been another run-of-the-mill season for Swarzak, thanklessly giving the Twins innings in games that, mostly, the best he can do is hope for the offense to come around. He's on pace to appear in 50 games while throwing 83 innings, which is comparable to what he's done for the Twins since 2012.
2014 has also been a return to form for Swarzak, as 2013's 2.91 ERA was well outside of his true talent level. Strikeout rates were slightly up, walk rates were slightly down, but what really boosted his ERA was the fact that he stranded 77% of his base runners. That number has unfailingly sat between 67% and 69% every other season in his career, and that's where it is this summer, too. If you want to boil down the reason for Swarzak's regression to one bullet point, that's it.
Long relief: Samuel Deduno, Ryan Pressly, Logan Darnell, Kris Johnson, Yohan Pino
The Major League rotation will have plenty of candidates going into 2015, and all of the players above - including Swarzak - won't be in line for a job unless something happens to two or more of the leading six candidates: Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milon, Trevor May, and Alex Meyer. Not all of the guys listed as Swarzak's competition will necessarily be on the roster when spring training rolls around, but if they are, they're probably competing directly with each other for one Major League job.
Ignoring the 12 awful games that he started for the Twins in 2009 and just counting what he's done since becoming a permanent fixture of the pitching staff in 2011, Swarzak has made 17 starts and 140 relief appearances totaling 357 innings for a 4.11 ERA (3.97 FIP). Strikeout rates (14.8%) and his lack of stuff mean that, during his tenure as a long reliever, we've gotten exactly what we could expect. And that's not a bad thing. Having a durable and fairly rubbery arm available on the cheap is valuable for all Major League teams.
Wait, did I say cheap?
Swarzak was arbitration-eligible for the first time last winter, and came away with a modest but palatable salary of $935,000. He'll be arbitration-eligible again before the 2015 and 2016 seasons, with his salary to rise as a result. I'd imagine he could get up to $1.7 million this winter with another million on top of that for his third year.
What's his role for the 2015 team?
Long reliever, obviously. If he's tendered a contract. That's what will be interesting to watch come November, because (as mentioned above) there is no shortage of players who might be able to fulfill the long relief role. It's easy to look at Swarzak and his rising salary and ask a league-minimum player to step in and do the job, but a league-average performance isn't always the no-brainer we think it should be. Swarzak hasn't been great in his career with the Twins, but he's done his job. His career ERA+ (since 2011) is 99, and it's really hard to be more average than that.
The question is: how long do the Twins give Swarzak raises for his league-average performance? At what point is it wiser to hope the league-minimum minor league arm can do the job, instead of paying a multiple of that salary?
Personally, I think the job still belongs to Swarzak in 2015. But it's not unthinkable to imagine the Twins moving in a different direction.