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40 in 40: Nestor Cortes

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The other former Yankees pitching prospect. No, the other other one.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Yesterday I wrote about Justus Sheffield, a player I love watching in spite of his flaws that run contrary to my typical player preferences. Today I’m back to talk about another young, under-sized LHP formerly of the Yankees organization. Unlike the ill-aiming Sheff, Nestor Cortes is, as the cursing kids say, “Extremely My Shit”.

Young pitcher blocked by more heralded options? Check. Command profile that compensates for mediocre velocity? Check. Constantly messing with their motion to throw hitters off and extract every possible bit of advantage? Check, cheque, Czech.

Cortes cost the Mariners $30k in international bonus pool space, a relative pittance, and he’ll make for a possible long relief/spot start/skeleton key in the bullpen. He’s done everything that’s been asked of him in the minor leagues, but been knocked around in the bigs, particularly as the home run spike seemed to hit Cortes harder than most. Between a .333 BABIP allowed and a 19.1% HR/FB rate, it doesn’t seem like the slender lefty has gotten lucky much in his first two years in the bigs. He’s seemed like a roughly league-average pitcher in most capacities, striking out a little over a batter per inning, but as is often an issue with soft-tossers, when asked to face big league hitters his efforts to nibble have led to higher walk rates than in the minors.

What Cortes is going forward isn’t rightly clear. He’s no closer than seventh on the rotation depth chart, angling for either a spot in Tacoma or a bullpen role with the M’s. A player like Cortes is perhaps the replacement for the LOOGY - a guy with several pitches whose best pitch is a slider, yet has a little more in his bag of tricks to get through 3+ hitters per new league rules. In 2019, Cortes threw 66.2 innings in 33 appearances, all but one in the bullpen. Seattle has only one lefty likely to crack their big league pen, Taylor Guilbeau, who has reverse splits thanks to a fastball/changeup repertoire. Trading platoon-dominance for length and versatility may be the way of the future, and guys like Cortes are on the front lines of this small but impactful shift.

Beyond that flexibility, you can squint and see a pitcher with four offerings that improve one another. Cortes’ four-seam, slider, changeup, and sinker all drew whiffs on a quarter of swings, particularly above-average for both fastballs. His sparsely used curve may need to go in the bin, however, as it has gotten clobbered in what data we have handy.

It’s easy to look at Cortes and see a young version of Vidal Nuno or Tommy Milone, and that may be what he’s got. But guys with pitches that miss big league bats are worth keeping around, tinkering, because with the right mixture of funk and feel, they can sometimes play a surprising role. I’m not sure quite what to expect from Cortes in 2020, but hopefully we see him have success, from one or several angles.