BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Why Andrés Muñoz could be Mariners’ next lights-out reliever

Feb 15, 2022, 9:10 AM | Updated: Feb 16, 2022, 11:02 am
Mariners Andrés Muñoz...
Mariners reliever Andrés Muñoz pitches in the 2021 season finale on Oct. 3, 2021. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

While one of the most anticipated seasons in Mariners history is on hold until the MLB lockout ends, we’re not letting that get in our way of breaking down why 2022 should be a big year for baseball in Seattle. Keep your eye on 710Sports.com for a series of articles looking at important topics for the Mariners. This week we’re concentrating on young players who could have a breakout year.

In this post, 710Sports.com’s Brandon Gustafson looks at reliever Andrés Muñoz. Find links to the other posts on breakout candidates at the bottom of the article.

The year was 2016 when the Mariners promoted a 22-year-old flamethrowing right-handed reliever with an electric fastball and wipeout slider to the bullpen.

Salk: Time for Mariners to spend money saved from Canó trade

It didn’t take long before Edwin Díaz established himself not only as the best reliever on the Mariners but in all of baseball.

I bring Díaz up because once again, the Mariners have a young, hard-throwing right-handed reliever set to be a fixture in the bullpen. And believe it or not, his stuff may be more electric than that of Díaz, a one-time All-Star with 173 career saves and a top 10 Cy Young finish to his name.

That right-hander is Andrés Muñoz, who just turned 23 last month.

Muñoz came to the Mariners in a 2020 trade deadline deal that saw Seattle send catcher Austin Nola and two relievers to the San Diego Padres. In return, the Mariners got Muñoz, infielder/hitting machine Ty France, highly-touted outfield prospect Taylor Trammell and slugging catcher Luis Torrens.

While the additions of Nola, Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla didn’t put the Padres over the top the last two years like they’d hoped, the return for the Mariners has already paid dividends in Seattle.

France was the Mariners’ most consistent bat last year and led the team in WAR, and while Torrens showed he isn’t great behind the plate, he had some big moments as a hitter. Trammell remains a work in progress and spent most of the year in Triple-A, but it’s easy to see his potential.

Then there’s Muñoz, who we finally got to see in the Mariners’ final game of 2021. He had been recovering from Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2020.

Muñoz made his MLB debut in 2019 at just 20 years old, appearing in 22 games for San Diego, throwing 23 innings and striking out 30 to go along with a 3.91 ERA and 3.17 FIP.

Simply put, Muñoz throws gas. Like gas gas. Like 100th percentile fastball velocity in 2019 gas.

In an era that’s being dominated by flamethrowers, especially out of the bullpen, Muñoz was the flamethrower in 2019. His four-seam fastball, which he threw 277 times, averaged 99.9 mph. In his brief appearance in 2021 for the M’s, the velocity was there again, averaging 99.6 mph, per Statcast.

But Muñoz is more than a hard-throwing hurler. He possesses an excellent breaking ball with his slider.

Opponents recorded just one hit off the slider in 2019, “good” for a .033 opponent batting average. The expected batting average off that pitch? Still just .064. The 23 innings Muñoz threw is still a small sample size, but it’s clear that the slider is a legit weapon. To further prove that point, 18 of Muñoz’s 30 strikeouts in 2019 came off the slider, and he used the pitch less that one-third of the time in favor of his fastball.

The Mariners enter 2022 in fantastic shape in the bullpen. Paul Sewald, Casey Sadler and Drew Steckenrider were dominate in 2021 and all will return. Along with Muñoz returning from Tommy John, so too will Ken Giles, who was one of the game’s best relievers in 2019 for Toronto. Seattle signed Giles prior to the 2021 season knowing he would be out until 2022, banking on him returning to the form that has produced 115 career saves, including three seasons with 20 or more.

Sewald, Sadler and Steckenrider all broke out in 2021 seemingly out of nowhere, but now they’re known across the league. Giles is a big name as well with big-time closer experience. But there’s a case to be made that Muñoz, if he remains healthy and the Mariners don’t drastically limit his innings, could be the best of the bunch not just this season but long-term. The Mariners clearly think that’s a possibility as they signed Muñoz to a four-year extension before the lockout, buying out his arbitration years and adding option years to the end of the deal, possibly keeping him in Seattle through 2028.

Muñoz has all the makings of an All-Star reliever.

I say reliever instead of closer because, as I’ve said before, limiting guys to closer roles in the ninth inning is silly and short-sighted. You want your best reliever facing the best opposing hitters in the biggest spots, regardless of the inning.

Last year, that was Sewald. Don’t be surprised if Muñoz is in that role starting in 2022. The stuff is that good.

More Mariners breakout candidates

Shannon Drayer: Why Jarred Kelenic could turn the corner in Year 2
Bob Stelton: Logan Gilbert showed he’s built for big moments
Brent Stecker: Cal Raleigh’s high ceiling at catcher

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