SARASOTA, FLA. — Nestor Cortes Jr. is plenty happy to lean into the skepticism that will follow his quest to make the Orioles rotation as a Rule 5 draft pick. In a career that's consisted of great successes, every bit of it has been assigned a caveat that explains his achievements as a glitch that the game will eventually correct.
As the Orioles coaches got their first glimpse of Cortes — the first of the club's three Rule 5 picks who by virtue of being a starting pitcher is in the conversation to be on the major league club Opening Day — they observed quickly that there's a lot about the left-hander that suggests a correction might never come.
“I had success in Low-A because I was facing Low-A hitters,” Cortes said. “I had success in High-A, and it's, 'Oh, let's see if he can get to Double-A.' When I did it in Double-A, it's, 'Oh, let's see if he can face the veteran hitters in Triple-A.' I guess every step of the way, I've proven myself to be a good pitcher.
Orioles pitching coach Roger McDowell isn't concerning himself with the lack of additions made in the free-agent market, but instead on the opportunities he can help the club's young, developing pitchers take hold of in 2018.
“I think throughout the season [last year], people said, 'Wow, Nestor is actually doing good.’ From 2015 to where I started and played advanced Rookie ball — I spent two years in the [Gulf Coast League] — until now, I've only gotten better. My seasons have gotten better. My numbers have gotten better. It's just a matter of time to where you keep going and people see, 'Wow, this kid can pitch.' "
In 2017, the numbers backed that up in a significant way. Over three levels in the New York Yankees system, the 23-year-old Cortes had a 2.06 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 104 2/3 innings. It didn't exactly come out of nowhere either. He spent his first three seasons after the Yankees selected him in the 36th round of the 2013 draft in Rookie ball before dominating in Low-A in 2016. Yet the Yankees moved him around from level to level to fill holes as if he were an organizational spot-filler.
Maybe to them he was. But to the Orioles, he can be more. And he sees that.
"I know the Yankees are a little stacked in their bullpen and starting rotation — they have some prospects over there that are really good," he said. "I'm just happy that I got a shot with the Orioles."
As a Rule 5 pick on a team that will have four players under those restrictions, Cortes arrives facing a challenge. That the club invests so much in keeping the Rule 5 players despite getting limited returns from them in recent years makes it logical to wonder whether the roster problems they create are worth it.
But to the players, and Cortes specifically, there's almost an honor to getting that designation.
"That's the goal," Cortes said. "I would hate to go back and say, 'Hey, I didn't make it. I'm back with the Yankees.' Not for everybody, but for my family and my friends. I want to say I made the big league club from the Rule 5 draft. I have that chip on my shoulder."
Whether Cortes is any different from his predecessors in terms of impact is a long way from being decided, but the coaches who saw him throw Monday immediately saw why he was worth a flier. His fastball lives in the high 80s and tops out around 90 mph, but he hides the ball well and keeps hitters off balance. Listed at 5 feet 11 and 205 pounds, Cortes has an easy, deceptive delivery with strong command and even the ability to change arm slots. He showed off his assets Monday.
"Watching tape on him and talking to people — have you guys looked at his stats, his background, his winning?" manager Buck Showalter said. "This guy likes to pitch. He's got a very — what's the word — not inventive but an educated hand. He can manipulate the baseball."
Pitching coach Roger McDowell echoed that.
"He was impressive," McDowell said. "He can spin it. Obviously, he's got some different looks. He has an idea how to pitch. Just from watching video of him, watching game video, then getting to see him and talk to him, his understanding of how to manipulate it, and he's got pitches for both sides of the plate for left-handers and right-handers."
While Showalter sees the potential value in having Cortes as a long reliever behind a rotation that's setting up to be predominantly right-handed, Cortes wants a shot as a starter in spring training. Considering how Showalter and McDowell took a liking to him at minicamp, that option could present itself.
If it does, Cortes won't need a reminder of what's at stake. Even as he's pitched to a lifetime 2.08 ERA with a 0.996 WHIP in his minor league career, opportunities like the one he has with the Orioles have been scarce. But he is experienced at having to fight for the chances that are presented to him.