Even in an Orioles organization that will find any way it can to keep a Rule 5 draft pick as long as possible, there's still a baseline that needs to be met in terms of major league production and value that player needs to meet in order to justify a 25-man roster spot.
In his third start of the Grapefruit League on Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays, which the Orioles lost 9-3 to fall to 6-7-1 in the Grapefruit League, left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. showed what could ultimately hold him back from reaching that Opening Day roster goal.
The Blue Jays had two hits and a run in each of Cortes' three innings at Ed Smith Stadium, with the rhythm-based pitcher never finding one and putting the Orioles in an early hole.
"I wasn't making them hit my pitch, and I think that's what hurt me today," said Cortes, who allowed three runs on six hits overall. "Too many pitches left over the plate, and too many strikes."
When he's at his best, the 23-year-old said he's using his 88-89 mph fastball and variety of off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance. He noted the inability to do that Thursday.
"It's more down in the zone, I think," Cortes said. "I left too many pitches in the zone, and I felt like they felt comfortable standing at the plate. I just need to make them chase my pitch."
The first inning escaped him quickly. After two quick groundouts, second baseman Lourdes Gurriel stung a single and scored on a double off the left-center-field wall by first baseman Jason Leblebijian.
In the second, top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. singled to open the frame, and scored on a two-out single by center fielder J.D. Davis. The third inning opened with a triple that right fielder Anthony Alford hit off the right-field wall, and he scored on the next pitch on another Gurriel single.
Cortes had one strikeout and didn't issue a walk, but now has a 6.43 ERA in the Grapefruit League, allowing five runs on 11 hits with four strikeouts and no walks in seven innings.
Manager Buck Showalter was more forgiving in his assessment than Cortes, suggesting there were some unfortunate circumstances he had to deal with.
“I thought his changeup got a little better as he went,” Showalter said. “He got fisted a couple times on some balls in, couldn't quite get in there far enough. A couple wind-blown things. A great hitters’ day today. Everything's flying. But there's some things you like. You can see why he's had some success. You just kind of ask yourself if the lights are on, the wind's not blowing, people are aggressive. You've got to be careful about putting too much on spring training, but where he's concerned that's kind of what you're going by.
“He's trying. He's not in midseason form, but he came in in good shape, ready to go. ... You try to take everything you get into perspective. I think he's going to throw it over. I think he's going to bring a lot of other things. It's just whether or not the stuff and their repertoire he has is going to play.”
Cortes’ lamentation that he left too many pitches in the strike zone illustrated the reality someone like Cortes lives in. Without premium velocity or the ability to blow hitters away, he needs to locate his pitches well and not leave them over the plate, something that requires consistently fine command.
That's what has helped him post a career 2.08 ERA in the minors, but he knows it'll have to be better to succeed at the major league level — and is glad for the fact that there's still plenty of spring training left.
"I think this start is going to happen," Cortes said. "I just have to find a way to bounce back and make the best of it. ... It just wasn't there today. I feel like I wasn't crisp."