JB Exclusive: Nestor Cortes’ Improbable Journey to the Bronx

From being a late-round draft pick, to becoming a fixture in the Yankees rotation, Nestor Cortes has taken his own path to big league success.

Nestor Cortes
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 24: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees in action against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on June 24, 2021 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Royals 8-1. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Before Nestor Cortes Jr. was taking the ball in season-defining games for the Yankees or selling Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge on a pet turtle for their clubhouse, he was a hard-working 36th round pick who was just trying to stick in the big leagues.

Originally drafted by the Yankees, Cortes was selected by the Orioles in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, but later returned to the Yankees after struggling in four appearances with the O’s in 2018. Cortes would go on to pitch 66 2/3 innings in mop-up duty for the Yankees in 2019, recording a 5.67 ERA. Prior to the 2021 season, Cortes was shipped back out by the Yankees, but this time to Seattle for international signing bonus pool money.

Cortes surrendered six home runs in 7 2/3 innings for the Mariners, spending a majority of the season in Triple-A before the Mariners let him walk via free agency. During the 2020 offseason, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman made a few moves to address the Yankees pitching including a trade for Jameson Taillon from the Pirates and signing veteran starter Corey Kluber.

Arguably, the best move Cashman made that offseason was the signing few paid attention to at the time. The decision to bring Nestor Cortes Jr. back on a Minor League deal. The 26-year-old Cortes made 22 appearances for the Yankees in 2021, including 14 starts, pitching to a 2.90 ERA along with the team’s second-best strikeout rate among starters, trailing only Gerrit Cole.

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So how in the world did Cortes go from allowing six home runs in seven innings to becoming one of the most reliable arms for the Yankees during their playoff push?

The question doesn’t offend Nestor. Sometimes he struggles to wrap his mind around it all himself.

Born in Surgidero, Cuba–a small village with a population of 6,000 located about 30 miles from the country’s capital city of Havana–Nestor and his father made the move to Miami after winning a visa lottery seven months after he was born.

As soon as Cortes was able to pick up a baseball, he was hooked. He played year round, as all kids do who are serious about baseball in Florida, never taking break from the sport and never really wanting to. As Cortes got older, he realized he was a pretty good player and he set his sights on earning a college baseball scholarship, knowing it would be tough for his parents to make the money work for college tuition.

Given the year-round approach to baseball in warm weather states, Cortes Sr. understandably did not love the idea of his son pitching too much in high school. Through his first two seasons at Hialeah High School, Cortes Jr. predominantly played right field and first base. It wasn’t until his coach Shane Fulton told him they needed more arms that Nestor really picked up the ball and took pitching more seriously.

Another big inspiration for Cortes to toe the robber was fellow Hialeah High School alum and MLB All-Star, Gio Gonzalez. The parallels between the two of them were uncanny. Beyond both Gonzalez and Cortes sharing the same high school and throwing with their left arm, Gonzalez was also of Cuban descent, lacked the towering height that that many scouts coveted, and relied on finesse to get guys out.

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Gonzalez pitched at Hialeah High nearly a decade prior to Cortes, but often came back to work with the high school players as his father Max was an assistant coach.

“I tried to do what Gio was doing in the big leagues when I was in high school,” Cortes said on the Just Baseball Show. “He was like, ‘Don’t try to be like me, don’t try to be Gio Gonzalez, try to be Nestor Cortes.”

Those words stuck with Cortes as he progressed through his professional career. He realized how many young pitchers were trying to emulate one of a kind players like Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez rather than striving to be the best versions of themself.

As Cortes began to pitch more, he envisioned potentially becoming a two-way player in college. After all, he was sitting more in the 82-84 mph range on the mound during his junior season.

It wasn’t until Cortes hit the weight room that we really started to see the jump in velocity on the mound. Ironically, that was not even the reason why Cortes started lifting.

“I started working out because I wanted to feel good and look good living in Miami,” Cortes said with a laugh.

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Going into his senior year, Cortes had added 10-15 pounds of muscle and when he toed the rubber at a showcase, he was shocked to find out that he had hit 90 mph on the radar gun. Scouts began to approach Nestor’s father with questionnaires and all of the sudden, scouts were attending his high school games pointing their radar guns at him.

Even then, it was more scouts just doing their due diligence because of Nestor’s video game numbers his senior year of high school. Nestor’s head coach at Hialeah High Shane Fulton got the sense that scouts wanted to see him get outs at a higher level before using a draft pick on him; especially because the lefty was more frequently sitting in the upper 80s with his fastball and stood at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds.

One scout felt a bit differently though. Carlos Marti, an area scout for the Yankees at the time, had coached Cortes on his summer team, the Florida Legends. The Legends are a non-profit travel organization that offers players the opportunity to play in the summer circuit and travel to tournaments all over the region. Notable alumni include Anthony Rizzo, Manny Machado, Luke Jackson and Chi Chi Gonzales among other big leaguers.

With the litany of elite players that Marti had come across through the years, something stood out about Nestor. The same thing that stands out today. How in the world was this kid getting so many whiffs from high-end talent on a low-velocity fastball?

“We were facing one of the best summer teams in the country and Nestor was just mowing them down at 85-87 miles per hour,” Marti said. “We called it the ‘invisi-ball’.”

Marti did not have access to Rapsodo or Trackman data, but the swings and misses were undeniable. Beyond that, Marti loved what he saw from Nestor on the mound; he was a bulldog even in front of the biggest of crowds.

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Once the spring came back around for Nestor’s senior season, Marti wanted to keep tabs on the lefty. Not only because of his Yankees area scout gig, but because he wanted to see Nestor succeed at the high school he used to coach at.

Nestor’s profile was somewhat of a non-starter for most Yankees scouts and Marti felt as though he was yelling into the void when he tried to sell his higher ups on the Hialeah native. Marti was relentless with his push to convince the Yankees to take a flier on Nestor late in the draft and he eventually was able to successfully talk them into taking him in the 36th round.

“Nestor did the most unbelievable job with an opportunity you can do,” Marti added. “In an organization full of guys throwing 100 miles per hour, he embraced his strengths and versatility. I’m really proud of him.”

Debuting at 18 years old professionally, Nestor was stellar from the jump. He would pitch to a 2.57 ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning in nearly 500 minor league frames before getting his big league shot.

The jump from the upper minors to the Major Leagues was a difficult one for Nestor. Bouncing back and forth from the Bronx to Triple-A Scranton, then to Baltimore for a cup of coffee, Seattle shortly after and then back around to New York is not something that just any player can handle. Nestor’s tireless attitude and competitive edge kept him afloat and earned him another opportunity with the Yankees last season, which as we all know, he more than took advantage of.

“Nestor is the most competitive baseball player that I’ve ever coached,” former Hialeah High baseball coach Shane Fulton said. “I still see that fearless Hialeah kid on the mound when I watch him pitch on TV. He’s just having fun.”

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Both Marti and Fulton always believed that Nestor Cortes Jr. could be a big leaguer. Maybe even more so than Nestor did himself. They saw the qualities that the Yankees faithful now love him for when Nestor was just a teenager. The craziest part? Nestor has even exceeded the expectations of those who believed in him the most. Not only is he a big leaguer, but he’s a damn good one.

As for Nestor, he’s still the same guy. Fearless, but humble. Hopeful, but hungry. He’s still going to rock his iconic mustache, ride the subway and shake anyone’s hand who comes up to him.

“I love being a Yankee,” Nestor said. “It’s still hard to believe I’m here, but I am going to keep working hard to get better and give my team a chance to win in whatever role I’m in.”