In ways, it’s an accomplishment that Nestor Cortes made the major leagues at all. He was a 36th round draft pick in 2013, and spent four full seasons in the minors, mostly in a swingman role. When he finally did get his chance in the majors, it came when the Baltimore Orioles selected him from the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft.
Then when he did get his chance, Cortes pitched like, well, a 36th round pick who was selected by a team in the Rule 5 draft. A 7.71 ERA in 4.2 innings with the Orioles saw him returned to the Yankees. He then put up a 5.67 ERA with the Yankees and got traded to the Mariners for “future considerations.” However, he eventually worked his way back to the Yankees’ org on a minor league deal for the 2021 season.
That would begin one of the more remarkable rises in recent Yankees history.
2022 Statistics: 28 games, 158.1 innings pitched, 12-4, 2.44 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 0.922 WHIP, 4.2 bWAR, 3.6 fWAR
In 2021, Cortes was a very pleasant surprise for the Yankees. After starting the year in the minors, he eventually got called up due to injuries for what everyone assumed would be a back-end-of-the-bullpen/mop up role. However, he performed well, and eventually got some spot starts, where he thrived. His performance was good enough that not only did he stick around in the bigs all season, but he was penciled into a rotation spot going into 2022.
However, it was also fair to have some amount of skepticism. Cortes’ MLB career prior to 2021 was nothing to write home about, and it was also only 93 innings. He’s not someone who’s out there blowing 99 MPH fastballs past batters. He wouldn’t have been the first pitcher to have a solid half one second and then fade away the next.
Cortes made his 2022 season in the fifth game of the season, throwing 4.1 shutout innings against the Blue Jays. However, it was five days later when he really began to show that his season could be something memorable. The Yankees’ offense may have struggled in a 5-0 loss to the Orioles, but Cortes was excellent. He struck out 12 hitters in five shutout innings, one of which was immaculate.
After that, Cortes continued motoring along throughout the first half, including making it into the eighth inning of a start for the first couple times of his career. In late June/early July, he went through a brief slump, but he closed out his first half by allowing one run in seven innings against the Reds.
That sent him into the All-Star break with a 2.63 ERA and a 3.56 FIP, which was good enough to see Cortes named to the American League All-Star team. He got to appear in the game, where he struck out two in a scoreless inning. In it, he was caught by fellow Yankee surprise All-Star Jose Trevino, and the two of them were mic’d up and gave the viewers an interesting look into pitch calling.
After the break, Cortes picked up where he left off, although he was briefly sidelined with a groin injury. Once he came back, he wrapped up his breakout season in impressive fashion. In his final start of the regular season, he struck out 12 Orioles in 7.1 innings. That day, he registered a game score of 86, which was the highest of any Yankee that season. That’s impressive, considering that several Yankees took no-hitter/perfect game bids deep into games.
Cortes made his postseason debut in Game 2 of the ALDS, allowing two runs in five innings in a loss that was hardly on him. After rain affected that series, the Yankees opted to bring him back on short rest for the deciding Game 5. He did everything the Yankees could’ve asked for that day, throwing five innings of one-run ball as the team won and advanced to the ALCS.
Unfortunately, the ALCS didn’t go well for either the Yankees or Cortes. His only start came in Game 4, where he allowed three runs in two innings, as he was clearly affected by a groin injury and had to exit early. For his efforts on the year, Cortes received some votes for the AL Cy Young Award, and finished in eighth place in the voting.
Going into 2023, people have been talking up a potentially very good Yankees rotation. Sure, a lot of that is because of Gerrit Cole, a healthy Luis Severino, and the new addition in Carlos Rodón. However, in talking up the rotation, Cortes get mentioned as well, and he’s very clearly earned that thanks to an incredible 2022.