Cortes gets Opening Day nod for Yankees: 'It's special'

With Cole injured, left-hander will be 'ready to go' for March 28 opener in Houston

March 16th, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s no easy task to replace Gerrit Cole, but the Yankees are hoping that will bring the “nasty” on Opening Day.

Cortes has been announced as the Yankees’ starter for the March 28 season opener against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. He will fill in for Cole, who is expected to miss one to two months with a right elbow injury.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone revealed his choice before Friday’s 6-2 Grapefruit League loss the Pirates, saying that the 29-year-old Cortes is “ready to go.” He will oppose Astros lefty Framber Valdez.

“I think he’s been really excited about his buildup here since he started his throwing program a couple of months ago,” Boone said. “He feels ready to go and ready to do it.”

Cortes will become just the fifth pitcher drafted and signed by the Yankees to start a season opener, joining Andy Pettitte (1998), Ron Guidry (1978-80, ’82-84, ’86), Doc Medich ('75) and Stan Bahnsen ('71). Cole was drafted by the Yankees in 2008 but did not sign.

“It’s special,” Cortes said. “Obviously, under the circumstances we are now, it’s not ideal. But you’re happy when you’re named Opening Day starter. It’s cool. It’s something to add to the resume, for sure.”

That career path represents a story of perseverance against long odds for Cortes, who was a 36th-round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft out of Hialeah (Fla.) High School.

Designated for assignment, released and traded in his career, Cortes made cameos with the Orioles (2018) and Mariners ('20) before returning to the Yankees in '21.

Incorporating a creative array of arm angles and funky hesitations, Cortes put it all together to become a fan favorite in 2022, going 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA in 28 starts while earning selection to the American League All-Star team.

“I’ve kind of always been the up-and-down guy earlier in my career, at best a fifth starter,” Cortes said. “I was able to get the All-Star [appearance] under my belt, but this [Opening Day assignment] was far-fetched for me. I’m just happy that Aaron Boone and the organization have the trust in me to go out there for the first game.”

In selecting Cortes, the Yankees bypassed Carlos Rodón and Marcus Stroman, who will start the season’s second and third games, respectively.

Stroman said Thursday he was offered the opportunity to start the opener, but he told Boone and general manager Brian Cashman that he preferred to stay on his current schedule, which includes the April 5 home opener against the Blue Jays.

Boone said Friday that his preference also was to have Stroman remain in line for the home opener.

“I got some wind that people are saying he was ducking [Opening Day]. Absolutely not,” Boone said. “Anyone that knows Marcus Stroman knows he ain’t ducking competition. What I found was, he was being the ultimate teammate in saying, ‘Whatever we need, I’ll do.’”

It has been a bumpy spring for Cortes, who has permitted nine runs and 17 hits across 10 innings over three Grapefruit League starts, an 8.10 ERA.

Because the left-hander dealt with a rotator cuff strain last season, Cortes spent most of his offseason focusing on rehab, frequently flying between his Miami-area home and the Yankees’ Tampa complex.

The work appears to have helped, as Cortes said that he feels healthy and has been bouncing back well between outings.

“He’s built up to a pretty good spot, and we feel good about it,” Boone said.

Cortes faced hitters in a live batting practice session Friday. He is set to make his next appearance on March 21, which means he will pitch on additional days of rest before facing the Astros.

“I want to finish camp great,” Cortes said. “These last two, I want to make sure I’m getting outs and not allowing any runs. I think we’ve gotten over the feeling healthy, feeling good part. And now it’s time to perform and do better.”