Nestor Cortes Jr. conceded that he wanted to perform well Wednesday against the New York Yankees, the team that left him unprotected this past offseason, allowing him to be selected by the Orioles in December’s Rule 5 draft. But when he took the mound against his former team, Cortes also wanted to keep his spring training priorities set — that he’s trying to show the Orioles he’s worthy of an Opening Day roster spot.
And Cortes’ 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the Orioles’ 7-4 Grapefruit League win over the Yankees kept his name in the starting rotation conversation while also giving him some added gratification.
“It was definitely that factor where you want to prove what they didn’t see in me,” Cortes said. “And obviously yesterday was one of those days. But it felt like any other day when I was pitching out there. Just trying to do me, and same thing as always.”
The outing came after Cortes, 23, struggled in his previous time out, allowing three runs on six hits in three innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 8.
“I prepared the same, did everything I could do prior to the outing,” Cortes said. “It was just one of those days when everything was working. Like I said before, the outing that wasn’t so good, I just left balls over the plate, and yesterday I think I managed to let them hit the pitch I wanted them to hit.”
Cortes, who comes at hitters with an array of velocities and arm angles, again had success against left-handed hitters, retiring all five lefties he faced, including strikeouts of Tyler Wade and Billy McKinney. One of the attributes that separates Cortes is that he’s able to drop his arm angle and sweep pitches across the plate, which is particularly effective against left-handed hitters. And that’s what he did to earn the those two strikeouts, dropping down with a 75 mph changeup to strike out Wade looking and then getting McKinney swinging on a low 90s fastball that was up and in.
“I don’t know if [it was] a step forward. It’s just getting kind of [back] to what his repertoire and his approach should be a little bit,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with him facing the Yankees. I think he just wanted to continue making a good impression. Better command of the fastball, changed levels with it a little bit. Spun the breaking ball early in the count. A few changeups. Pitched well against left-handed hitters. That was good.”
Cortes has to show he can get right-handed hitters out as well. It is imperative to be successful as a starter, and even to make the bullpen he must show he can do more than get lefties out. On Wednesday, Cortes retired 10 of the 13 batters he faced, allowing a two-out ground-rule double to Brandon Drury — the only hit he allowed — and walking two other right-handed batters.
He also struck out two righties, including a swinging strikeout of slugger Aaron Judge, in which Cortes was behind 3-1 in the count before throwing two low-90s fastballs by Judge that caught him off guard.
“It was just one of those things — I know my fastball isn’t hard enough, but it plays up to the speed, so maybe I got lucky,” Cortes said.
As his rotation bid goes into the final days of spring training, he will have to prove he can get outs the second and third time through the order. The Orioles will get more of a glimpse of that now that starters are playing deeper into games and Cortes will continue to push his innings limit.
“The next couple are just as important as the first [ones],” Cortes said. “I think I still have to prove myself and let everybody know that I can pitch like always. I’m not thinking about the results after spring training, whether I’m going to Baltimore or whether I’m going back to New York. I know that I’m going to give it my best here and hope that I can make a statement and help the club out.”
Despite last week’s rough outing, Cortes owns a 4.35 spring ERA. He’s allowed his share of hits — 12 in 10 1/3 innings – but has also logged four times as many strikeouts (eight) as walks (two).
Whether Cortes slots into the rotation or the bullpen, the Orioles must be convinced he’s major league-ready. The team must carry him on the active 25-man roster for 90 days to meet his Rule 5 requirements to keep him, and he can’t be sent to the minors this season. So, despite an impressive minor league track record that made him the Orioles’ first Rule 5 pick, there’s no way to hide him if he’s not ready to get major league hitters out.
His situation is further complicated by the fact that the Orioles took two other Rule 5 picks — right-hander Pedro Araujo from the Chicago Cubs and José Mesa from the Yankees, though Araujo seems to be pushing for a roster spot more than Mesa. Once the Orioles signed Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman to fill out the rotation, it left just one starting spot and three bullpen spots up for grabs.
For now, Cortes is competing with Miguel Castro and Mike Wright Jr. for the team’s final rotation spot, but he could have value as a multiple-inning reliever who can also get lefties out situationally. He feels he’s made a strong case for a starting spot, but realized he might also slot into the bullpen.
“No, I feel like I’m still in the competition,” Cortes said. “Mike Wright has done a great job. Castro has gone out there and competed. We’re all doing the same thing. We’re all going out there and trying to compete and that’s the beauty of it. You’re fighting for a fifth spot, but you’re also fighting for being on the club, so whatever comes my way I’m going to take it.”