Nestor Cortes is quite the enigma.
Cortes stands at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds and he looks every bit of it. The night I saw him, his fastball topped out at 89 miles per hour. Yet over the past two seasons, the 22-year-old left-hander has stymied every level of baseball.
The Yankees selected Cortes in the 36th round of the big 2013 MLB Draft that changed the organization’s future. He spent his first two seasons in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian League before bouncing around all four levels of full-season ball last year. Starting in Charleston, Cortes split time in the rotation and coming out of the bullpen for the RiverDogs, Tampa, Trenton and even a spot start with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
His numbers were remarkable, despite the fact that his stuff wasn’t. He combined to go 11-4 behind a 1.53 ERA and 0.80 WHIP over 106 innings pitched. Cortes struck out 115 and walked just 24, or just about a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
When I spoke to then-RiverDogs skipper Luis Dorante during the South Atlantic League playoffs about what stood out most to him about Cortes last season, he told me it was his mindset. Dorante said Cortes had an awareness of his stuff and that Cortes just wants outs. He doesn’t try to overpower anyone, nor does he pitch for strikeouts. He hopes to get contact, and trusts his fielders, and the strikeouts continue to somehow mount.
This season, Cortes is at it again. He started the season in Tampa, made another pit stop in Trenton and is now on the hill for the RailRiders. He’s been primarily a long-man over his 27 appearances, although he has made 10 starts this season. His current numbers are strong once again, sitting at 6-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 87.2 innings. His strikeouts are down just a bit from his breakout 2016, but he is still striking out 8.77-per-nine. He is walking 2.88-per-nine, so he keeps the runners at check. Hitters are posting a .197 batting average against.
(all videos courtesy of The Minor League Prospect Video Page)
I saw Cortes on a Wednesday night in Gwinnett. He came in long-relief after Luis Cessa made a brief 2.1-inning start. Cortes came on and tossed four innings, striking out three and walking none. The lone run he “allowed” was a runner he left on when he got pulled and Giovanny Gallegos allowed to score.
Cortes’ arsenal was crazy to watch. He works the mound from the middle and doesn’t have much at all to his delivery. He probably could use a little more arm, but he works the strike zone pretty consistently. He works quick, and attacks, and even his balls don’t miss by much. He needed just 58 pitches to get through four innings, landing 37 for strikes.
To say Cortes has a fastball is a bit of an overstatement as it topped out at 89. He has a changeup that works in the mid-70s, so it adds nice deception.
Oh, speaking of deception.
Cortes will come at you in true sidearm style. It is a completely different delivery than his fastball.
He goes towards the first base side when he goes to the side slot, and his back leg comes around and lands almost as if he’s falling off the mound. I also watched him take so much off of the pitch, some landed in the 60s. He can take off 20 miles per hour on consecutive pitches, and when you have the stuff that Cortes has, it makes him dangerous.
Cortes has been aided by relatively low BABIPs throughout the course of his career. A large part of that is because balls simply aren’t hit hard against him. This season in Triple-A, he seems to have found more success by an increased ground ball rate. Forty-five percent of his batted balls are grounders, while 33 percent are fly balls. He had four ground outs to two fly outs the night I saw him. That has not been the norm throughout his career, but if he’s figured it out, it will help him that much more one day in the home run-friendly confines of Yankees Stadium.
Ramiro Mendoza. Alfredo Aceves. Aaron Small. The Yankees have long made long-man relievers with middling stuff into household names. If Cortes continues to fool hitters at Triple-A, he could very well be the next swingman in the Bronx.