[Antonio Slader contributed to this article]
Cortes, a 36th round pick out of high school back in 2013, had a breakout season in 2016. He posted a combined 1.53 ERA over four different minor league levels and struck out 115 batters in 106 innings, and allowed just 65 hits all year long. He pitched mostly at low and high-A but also made a few appearances with the Double and Triple-A affiliates.
“He pitched some really good games last year," Trenton manager Bobby Mitchell said, "and then in the spring I saw the same kind of stuff. He controls the strike zone with a different number of pitches, plus he works really fast.”
Not exactly known for power, Cortes, standing just 5-foot-11, sits anywhere from 85-91 mph with his fastball but does have three secondary pitches, including both a slider and a curveball, that are very effective. Given the depth of his arsenal it would appear he's best suited for a starting role. However, given a fastball that doesn't overpower batters either, sometimes he appears better coming out of the bullpen. The good news is Cortes can do both.
"He’s gonna be a spot starter and middle relief guy," Mitchell explained. "He’s gonna sometimes be a left specialist to come in and get out some lefties, and he’s a guy that can go a number of innings so that saves our bullpen [too].”
And so far this season Cortes has been used in both roles, starting four games and relieving four others. Three of his four relief appearances have been on the shorter side too [under two innings] and coming out of the bullpen, like anything else in life, takes some getting used to.
Cortes, known for his pinpoint control, has walked twelve batters so far this season after issuing just 24 all of last season, and five of those twelve walks have come in just 3.1 bullpen innings.
"Right now he’s just not quite back to where he was last year, but it’s early," Mitchell said. "He’s struggling a little bit with his command and his pitches, and he really needs to get left-handed hitters out because if he can he is going to be a really successful reliever.”
Part of that transition to pitching out of the bullpen more is further developing his slider, a pitch that he had just introduced into his repertoire this time a year ago. He has also put a new wrinkle on the slider this year too, dropping his arm angle sometimes to get a little more deception against left-handed batters and it's something he's working on this season, and it has been a reason for the less-than-stellar command he's normally shown over the years.
"That slider has some really good break too it,” Mitchell said. “And me being a lefty, I've seen those guys and they’re very tough. You don't see them very often, but they drop their arm down, they come side-arm, and when the ball is going away from you it makes it very tough.”
Cortes is still working on perfecting that aspect of his still relatively new slider and obviously commanding it isn't second nature to him yet but he keeps plugging away. Still, eight of his twelve walks this season have come to lefties so it tells the story of how he's still working on it and how much further it needs to go.
Like it is with any young prospect still developing his game, Cortes is trying to fine-tune the aspects of his game that will help take him to the next level. Since he doesn't have the upper-90s gas at his disposal, perfecting that breaking ball and new arm angle could help carve an eventual big league role for him.
"My expectation for him is to come in and really get lefties out as a reliever," Mitchell said. "I mean, that’s going to be his job. Lefties need to get lefties out, and if they can, sometimes they become left handed-specialists. When a righty comes up, they may elect to bring somebody else in.”
While Cortes continues to work on perfecting his transitioning role, the fact is he has done an admirable job to date. He has posted a combined 3.16 ERA so far this season and struck out nearly a batter per inning pitched. So while the numbers are not quite where they were a year ago, he is still making significant progress in his development and having in-game success at the same time.
"I think my slider has gotten a lot better," Cortes said. "At Spring Training, I was trying to make my slider look like a fastball and it only goes back one year from now when I didn’t have a slider at all, and Jose Rosado (Thunder pitching coach) told me I needed something quicker because I have a slow curveball and a fastball. He said 'let’s get you something in between'. We worked on it and it’s come a long way.”
"He throws strikes," Mitchell added. "He’s gotten away from it a little bit the last [couple of] outings but he throws strikes, He is very deceptive with his delivery. He has a good slider, especially to lefties and he works fast, and when you work fast, thatss something where your defense is going to help you out a lot too.”
The coaching staff isn't too concerned about Cortes' minor struggles in transitioning to his new role, noting that they're only minor hiccups at this point. And Cortes himself, with a wealth of performance already behind him, isn't too concerned long-term either.
"I'm feeling confident," Cortes said. "My last [few] outings haven’t been what I want them to be, but I'm working hard with the pitching coach, Jose Rosado, and he’s keeping me confident and just trying to throw strikes.
“You just got to grind out every day. It’s not a struggle because you are doing what you love, but it is a job and every day you need to come out and prepare for what you got to do. You just got to set up your priorities," he concluded.