Originally selected by the Yankees in the 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, Nestor Cortes made his Yankees debut in relief on May 11th, 2019. Known for his quirky, inconsistent delivery designed to throw hitters out of rhythm, Cortes primarily served as the “bulk guy” behind opener Chad Green. While the stark difference in their styles helped him find some success in the role — he did, after all, post a 3.52 ERA and limit opposing starters to a .228/.237/.368 slash in 15.1 innings across his four non-London June appearances — his final numbers were so extraordinarily lackluster (5.67 ERA, 5.57 FIP in 66.2 innings) that nobody was all that disappointed when he was traded to the Seattle Mariners that November for international bonus money.
Cortes returned to the Yankees organization as a minor league free agent following the 2020 season. Nobody expected him to be anything more than minor league depth, stashed in Scranton and labelled “In Case of Emergency.” But when his number was called, Cortes delivered, becoming a fan favorite by season’s end.
2021 Stats: 93 innings, 2.90 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 1.075 WHIP, 27.5 K%, 6.7 BB%, 1.35 HR/9, 2.8 bWAR, 1.7 fWAR
2022 ZiPS Projections: 97.3 innings, 4.44 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 1.26 WHIP, 9.60 K/9, 2.68 BB/9, 1.76 HR/9, 1.1 WAR
After a lackluster spring training that saw him give up five runs and seven hits in seven innings, Cortes began the season at the alternate site, then found himself in the Scranton RailRiders bullpen once the minor league season began. In five appearances across the month of May, he surrendered just two earned runs on eight hits in 15 innings, walking just one batter and striking out 18. He was recalled from Scranton on May 30th when the Yankees needed fresh arms after Deivi García and Albert Abreu got knocked around by the Detroit Tigers lineup, and he made his first appearance of the season that day, allowing two runs (one earned) in 3.1 innings out of the bullpen while striking out three and walking four.
At this point in time, we all thought that we were going to get the same Cortes as we remembered from 2019. Instead, over the following six weeks, he was lights-out, allowing just two runs in 22 innings across a mix of starts and both multi-inning and one-inning relief outings; opposing batters, meanwhile, posted just a .430 OPS.
His performance earned him a spot in the rotation, and aside from a bullpen appearance as a quasi-rehab outing after a bout with COVID-19 after the All-Star Break, there he remained for the rest of the season. Over the final two months of the season, he was a top-30 pitcher in baseball: his 3.43 ERA in that stretch ranked 20th among pitchers with at least 60 innings in that span (ahead of Luis Castillo, Joe Musgrove, Kevin Gausman, and Marcus Stroman), and his 19.9 K-BB% ranked 13th (ahead of Castillo, Musgrove, Stroman, and Walker Buehler). He pitched so well, in fact, that if the Yankees had decided to start him against the Red Sox instead of the injured Gerrit Cole in the Wild Card Game, nobody would have batted an eye.
Of course, the question now is whether or not Cortes can repeat his 2021 performance going forward. To that end, in limited action so far this spring, Cortes has been dominant, striking out five batters and allowing just one hit in four scoreless frames across two appearances. His command has been good, and he has yet to walk a batter. While I hesitate to put too much stock into spring training results, Cortes has looked much more like his 2021 self than his 2018-2020 version.
We will see soon whether this will continue into the regular season. At this point in time, Cortes is pretty much locked in as the Yankees’ No. 5 starter, behind Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, and Jameson Taillon. It is a rotation filled with a lot of upside, but also a lot of question marks behind Cole. An encore performance from Cortes would certainly make the other question marks easier to endure.