Yankees’ starting pitcher Nestor Cortes throwing in the top of...

Yankees’ starting pitcher Nestor Cortes throwing in the top of the first inning while playing the Minnesota Twins at George M Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. on Monday Feb. 26, 2024. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

TAMPA, Fla. — Nestor Cortes believes that with health,  recapturing his 2022 All-Star form is pretty much a given.

That remains to be seen. The regular season ultimately will be the final authority on that. But the lefthander is off to a promising start.

Cortes, beset by shoulder issues from the time he reported for spring training last year, felt healthy and strong throughout the offseason.

He looked the part in bullpen sessions and live batting-practice sessions leading up to his first exhibition start, and that also went relatively well on Monday.

Cortes allowed two runs and seven hits in 2 2/3 innings in the Yankees’ 9-2 victory over the Twins at Steinbrenner Field.

Ignore those numbers, rival scouts assigned to the Yankees for spring training said. Cortes, who struck out four, walked none and mostly filled up the strike zone (48 pitches, 35 for strikes), showed them flashes of the pitcher he was in 2022.

“Pitched to contact when behind and gave up some cheap hits,” one National League scout said. “Best thing today was his fastball played well at the top of the zone. It was deceptive up and the Twins' young hitters struggled to lay off and came up empty.”

An American League scout who saw quite a bit of Cortes in 2022, when he went 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA, also mentioned his ability to get his fastball up. It sat in the range of 92 to 94 mph.

“Such a big pitch for him,” the evaluator said. “That was the key to him [in 2022].”

Said a third scout, also from the AL: “Looked healthy. Not restricted at all.”

Cortes went through a miserable 2023 after arriving in Tampa for spring training with concerns about his shoulder because of the unusual amount of soreness he felt the day after throwing. He  never really was healthy and ended up going 5-2 but with a 4.97 ERA and was able to make only 12 starts.

Speaking after Monday's start, Cortes said what “was most important” from his outing was “getting out of there healthy.”

Cortes began his throwing program in early December and soon after that started shuttling regularly between his home in Miami and the Yankees' minor-league complex in Tampa to work out. He hasn’t experienced the kind of soreness the day after throwing that he did last year, but it still is on his mind. Any time he has thrown this year, he’s mentioned “how I feel tomorrow” as being first and foremost in his thoughts.

“The feeling tomorrow is going to dictate going forward how well I’m recovering,” Cortes said. "Last time around [after his previous live BP] was pretty good. Actually, I feel good right now. I felt like I could have gone another inning or another few pitches without any issue, but obviously this is the build-up process, so happy where I’m at.”

Speaking specifically of the recovery issues from last year, Cortes said: “I’m pretty confident they’re behind me . . . It’s been a non-issue for a good month now, so I feel great where I’m at.”

He later added: “Obviously with the workload increasing now, we’re going to see where we’re at, but as of now, I feel like I’m bouncing back pretty good and back to my normal self.”

That's certainly what the Yankees want to hear.  They believe they have a loaded team primed to contend for the AL East title, but they also have significant questions surrounding their rotation, both at the back end with Cortes and Clarke Schmidt and with organizational depth in that department. If Cortes is able to pitch the way he did in 2022, it would go a long way toward answering some of those concerns.

“I’m really encouraged where he’s at and how the ball’s coming out,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

Boone, like some of the scouts, mentioned Cortes’ fastball in the upper part of the zone as being especially encouraging.

“His fastball is playing,” he said. “He had his swing-and-miss on his fastball, which he can pitch up [in the strike zone]. I thought it was a good day for him.”

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