The New York Yankees are in a fierce battle for the American League Wild Card, as they’re in a three-way tie with the rival Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox for the two playoff seeds. In the side-view mirror is the Oakland Athletics, who are three and a half games back, and Seattle Mariners, who are four games back.
It’s a yearly tradition to question whether the Yankees have enough starting pitching to win the AL pennant. The reason why the answer to that question this season is a convincing yes is because they have depth outside of Gerrit Cole.
More specifically, they have Nestor Cortes Jr., who has been a sight to behold for the Yankees and a vital piece to their pitching staff.
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Nestor Cortes Jr. has been phenomenal
In years past, Cortes has been a long reliever, a role he assumed once more in his return to the Bronx this season (Cortes spent 2019 with the Yankees and came back to the team in free agency last offseason after spending 2020 with the Mariners).
After a brief stint with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, Cortes made his 2021 MLB debut on May 30, where he hit the ground running. Then injuries began to pile up for manager Aaron Boone’s starting rotation, which led to Cortes being inserted into the starting rotation. He has been better than they could’ve ever asked for.
- Nestor Cortes Jr. stats (2021): 2.60 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 165 ERA+ and 87 strikeouts across 19 appearances, 11 of which are starts
Cortes has been efficient, is keeping his pitch count down and inducing weak contact. All the while, he’s logging strikeouts and keeping runners off the basepaths at a high level. Cortes is doing as such with a consistent four-pitch arsenal (fastball, cutter, slider and changeup).
He has thrived at home and on the road and surrendered no more than four earned runs in any of his appearances at the big-league level this season. The 26-year-old has been a model of consistency.
Nestor Cortes Jr. has been indispensable for the New York Yankees
As previously alluded to, injuries have played a role — again — in the on-the-fly realignment of the Yankees’ pitching staff.
Corey Kluber missed three months with a shoulder injury after excelling over the first two months of the regular season. Domingo German has missed the last six weeks due to a shoulder injury. Luis Severino still hasn’t been able to take the hill this season. Jameson Taillon was recently put on the injured list with an ankle injury after pitching like the 2018 version of himself that was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace in the second half of the current season.
Cortes’ play has removed the injury question mark from this rotation, generally speaking. He balances out the rotation when it comes to having a mix of right- and left-handed hurlers. It could force an opposing team to take someone out of the lineup for the sake of getting more hitters from the other side of the plate in the batter’s box.
Now, the Yankees’ rotation has become one of the better units in MLB and is one for them to be enthused by. But if one removes Cortes from the equation, there’s no telling where this team would be in the standings. If they had incorporated someone else into the rotation, they could be three games out of a Wild Card spot.
The Yankees also have a streaky bullpen working against them. Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green have been shaky down the home stretch while Jonathan Loaisiga and Zack Britton could each be done for the year due to injuries. Cortes getting the ball to the bullpen in the seventh inning or later takes some pressure off a deteriorating relief corps, therefore making them more effective.
Cortes has been nearly, if not as essential to the Yankees as Cole when considering how the team is expected to win every time he takes the hill. There’s also the element of Cortes having the ability to be both an effective six-inning starter and long reliever.
Nestor Cortes Jr. is ideal for postseason play
Let’s indulge in a couple situations both of which include the Yankees at least cracking the AL Wild Card Game.
Scenario one sees Gerrit Cole go seven strong innings en route to a Yankees’ victory that sends them to a best-of-five series with the Tampa Bay Rays. Cortes then gets the ball in Games 1 and 5 if the series goes the distance. The Yankees get their number two starter on the hill twice with Cole possibly coming out of the bullpen for a couple innings in the final game of the series after starting Game 2 or 3.
Scenario two sees Cole get tattooed in the first inning of the Wild Card Game so much so that the Yankees have to treat the situation as if one swing of the bat ends their season. The Blue Jays lead the Yankees 3-0 with the bases loaded and only one out. Cortes can come out of the bullpen for however long necessary, and if the Yankees find a way to come back and win, Cole takes the rubber again in Game 1 of the ALDS, meaning he gets two starts in a would-be five-game series. Cortes subsequently moves back a day in the rotation.
A five-man rotation of Cole, Cortes, Taillon, Jordan Montgomery and German/Luis Gil is a unit that the Yankees can move forward with. It’s a group with balance, upside and strikeout pitching.
No matter the way you slice it, Nestor Cortes Jr. has been the stealth of this pitching staff. He’s efficient, effective and versatile. The question isn’t how Cortes will fare in the postseason: it’s where would the Yankees be without him this season?