Plenty of storylines emerged from the 2022 MLB season, one of which involved the left-handed hurler Nestor Cortes. Not only was he an enjoyable personality off the field who brought plenty of fans smiles and laughs, but on the bump, he brought tons of diversity with his pitch mix and the way he would throw the ball.
Tuning into a game with Cortes on the mound meant you would get a show, usually a good one. In 28 games started and 158.1 innings pitched to the tune of a 2.44 ERA and a 2.70 xERA. Not only that, but he had a 3.13 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, and 3.6 fWAR. Those numbers were clearly the best in his career, and his 2.44 ERA easily beat his 2021 breakout of 2.90.
On Friday night, the New York Yankees avoided arbitration with Cortes after his stellar season, signing him to a 1-year deal worth $3.2 million, which will be a bargain if he's able to recreate his 2022.
In his two seasons with the Yankees, Cortes has made himself a rotation staple. Despite his unconventional pitching style, he gained the love and appreciation of a fanbase that can be hard to win over if you rub them the wrong way. Bolstering Cortes’ case is that he was arguably the Yankees' best pitcher throughout the first half of the season. He was easily the team's most consistent pitcher over the entire season, and he earned a much-deserved All-Star nod.
There are plenty of fans who may be concerned that Cortes could be a one-year wonder. He had never pitched that many innings in a season in his entire career, so some may be inclined to believe (even if they love the lefty or are indifferent to him) that it may all be a mirage. To pitch that well in that many innings despite never a minimal big-league background may make it appear that regression is imminent.
However, Cortes did play very well in the second half of his first season with the team in 2021, so the idea that he is just a one-season wonder isn’t entirely accurate. If the Yankees could get that again, especially with Frankie Montas out of the rotation for the first month of the 2023 season, it would certainly help the cause. (Montas wasn’t particularly good with the Yanks in 2022, but starting the year down a member of the starting rotation out is never optimal.)
The good news — for the Yankees’ front office anyway — is that with Cortes only on his first year of arbitration, his contract is very team-friendly and inexpensive. They have the confidence that they only need to commit $3.2 million to potentially lock in above-average pitching for over 150 innings. That eats up a not-insubstantial portion that any quality team needs to get from a mid-rotation starter in a good season.
One of the reasons why teams like the Astros have succeeded in recent years is that their own young talent has provided similar such value from early-arbitration players like Cortes. As much as we would like the Yankees to have an even higher payroll, there is clearly some specific number that the front office has in mind. His quality of production thus ideally gives them more motivation* to spend those deemed “extra funds” on improving the personnel around him — be it by helping them come to terms with Gleyber Torres in arbitration, bringing another player or two aboard the active roster before spring training, or making a midseason addition.
*The system as a whole has some justified objections, but this is the status quo under the new CBA.
Cortes has made his living off of defying expectations, and he’ll try to do so again for anyone skeptical of him repeating 2022. Another season of 150-plus innings of All-Star caliber pitching will not only help raise the confidence of the other starters in the rotation but also help the bullpen. As mentioned before, Cortes was one of the more consistent pitchers in the rotation last season, and he especially helped when the bullpen was short-staffed due to some critical injuries. They're going to need him to do that again.
Cortes projects to produce under his 2022 marks, but even so, anything close to it will help this new contract seem like a boon. Even just being a consistent top-of-the-rotation pitcher that can keep adding deception to a rotation full of players who can throw the ball with ridiculous speed is going to make him look good.
The southpaw has been a great addition to the rotation since 2021, and everyone should be excited that the two parties were able to avoid arbitration. Breaking performance barriers are the name of the game for Cortes, and he is going to have every opportunity to do it again in 2023.