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Yankees 2024 Season Preview: Nestor Cortes

Nasty Nestor wasn’t at his best last year while battling shoulder woes. This time, he is looking for a big rebound.

Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Yankees are coming off a highly disappointing season in which just about everything that could have gone wrong, did, in fact, go south. Aaron Judge missed two months’ worth of games, Giancarlo Stanton declined, Carlos Rodón was abysmal, Anthony Rizzo’s excellent performance in the first two months got derailed by a concussion… and more.

You can add Nestor Cortes to that list of casualties. The left-hander, who had pitched 158.1 innings of a 2.44 ERA in 2022, was limited to 63.1 frames last year and posted a disappointing 4.97 ERA. Yes, some decline was to be expected after dominating for two years, but most of his issues stem from a problematic left shoulder.

2023 Statistics: 12 starts, 63.1 innings, 4.97 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 0.8 fWAR, 0.5 rWAR, 25.2 K%, 7.5 BB%, 67 strikeouts, 5-2 W-L

2024 ZiPS Projections: 102.7 innings, 3.86 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 2.0 fWAR, 23.7 K%, 6.7 BB%

Now, Cortes is reportedly healthy and looking for a big bounce-back season. Manager Aaron Boone told reporters in early December that the southpaw was targeting a normal ramp-up to spring training; and so far we haven’t seen anything to indicate otherwise.

Getting Rizzo and Stanton (and, to an extent, DJ LeMahieu) back to full form is definitely one of the keys to the Yankees’ success this year. But getting Cortes to contribute his 140-150 innings from the rotation is just as important.

The Bombers made an effort to fix their outfield woes and brought in three starting-caliber players there: Juan Soto, Alex Verdugo, and Trent Grisham. However, their rotation, even with the addition of Marcus Stroman, does seem a bit short.

If one of Gerrit Cole, Rodón, Cortes, Stroman, or Clarke Schmidt get injured, we might see a rookie as the team’s fifth starter as things stand. The Yanks’ rotation depth hasn’t been properly addressed, not when Will Warren, Luis Gil, Clayton Beeter, or perhaps even veteran Luke Weaver might be forced into action because one of the top five got hurt (and that’s very much a possibility).

That’s why Cortes being healthy and effective is so important for the 2024 Yanks. There is just not too much room for error. Can he stay in one piece, though?

Well, a hamstring injury delayed Cortes’ 2023 spring debut and derailed his routine. He returned in time to open the year in the Yankees’ rotation, but wasn’t his usual effective self. In early June, he received a cortisone injection in his left shoulder and was placed on the 10-day injured list with a rotator cuff strain.

Nestor returned to the roster on August 5th, almost two months after being placed on the injured list, to pitch four one-run innings against the Astros, adding eight strikeouts in the brilliant performance. That day, his fastball averaged 93 mph, about a mile and a half faster than what he had shown earlier in the year.

But the joy wouldn’t last long: the 2022 All-Star returned to the injured list with the same ailment just three days later, and this time, he wouldn’t come back. It was a true shame, because Nestor looked electric that day:

Here we are, a few months later, and Cortes is expected to be a big part of the Yankees’ pitching plans. For the sake of the team and the season, everyone is crossing their fingers that this the case.

The idea is that, if healthy, Cortes uses the same recipe that made him successful in 2021-22: a healthy dose of cutters (a little below 30 percent), a lot of four-seam fastballs (over 40 percent) and his sweeper.

In 2023, perhaps because Cortes knew his shoulder wasn’t quite right, he sacrificed some sweepers and threw more fastballs. In 2022, his usage of the heater was 43.8 percent, and went up to 52.1 percent last year. In turn, his sweeper went from 18.6 percent to 13.9 percent. The fastball was as good as ever, with a .246 xwOBA, but the cutter and the sweeper were much worse in 2023 than 2022: the former went from a .289 xwOBA to a .351 mark; while the latter’s effectiveness declined from a .283 xwOBA to a .353 xwOBA.

Regaining the effectiveness of his cutter and sweeper will be the key to Cortes’ success this season. To be at his best, however, he needs his shoulder to be in the best possible condition. So here’s hoping.