PEORIA, Ariz. — The Seattle Mariners wanted Dan Cortes to arrive at spring training as a pitcher changed for the better after his winter-ball experience in Venezuela.
The goal was to have the hard-throwing relief pitcher experience the high-energy crowds there — maybe even get rat
tled by it all — in order to help him get a feel for the late-inning intensity he’ll feel in the major leagues.
Nobody will know until well into spring training, if that, just how Cortes’ anxiety affects his pitching. But one thing already is vastly different about the 6-foot-6 right-hander.
When last seen as a Mariner, Cortes’ long dark hair tickled his ear lobes. Monday, on the Mariners’ first day of spring training workouts, the hair was short.
“It got really long by the time I left Venezuela,” he said. “It got down to my shoulders.”
After the holidays, the 23-year-old decided to make a New Year’s change. He pulled out the clippers and started buzzing.
“I think I got bored at home,” Cortes said. “I figured that once I got to spring training they would make me cut it. So I started buzzing my hair.”
He buzzed one side down to the nubs, then the other, and what remained was a really cool-looking extra-long mohawk. At least Cortes thought it looked cool.
“My sister didn’t like it,” he said. “She said, ‘That’s not you! Buzz it off!’ So I buzzed it all off. It was a complete buzz for a while.”
Cortes has let it grow out a little and plans to let it get long again this season.
“But back then, when I cut it, I felt like it was a new year, new beginning,” he said.
He’d like to say that about his place with the Mariners. A year after he went to spring training with no real chance to make the team, Cortes is one of the hard-throwing hopes of a team that could use him as a late-inning reliever.
“This time I actually have a chance to make the team out of spring training,” he said. “Last year, I knew I was go back to Double A or Triple A. I busted my butt this offseason not only physically but mentally to be prepared for it.”
There’s not much to doubt about Cortes physically. He can throw his fastball close to 100 mph and topped that several times in the minor leagues last year.
Mentally, the Mariners must know how he’ll handle the stress of the late innings. That’s why they changed their offseason plan for him, sending him to winter ball in Venezuela instead of the relatively placid atmosphere of the Arizona Fall League.
“I’d heard about Venezuela being a very high-energy place with the crowds and everything,” he said. “If you didn’t perform there, they were going to get at you. The whole experience was pretty fun. I just went out there and did my thing.”
Cortes went 10-for-10 in save opportunities for Lara, although his stats line showed some troubling signs. In 191/3 innings, he walked 21 and struck out 13. He said it wasn’t the intensity that affected him as much as the long year that dragged into December.
“The only issue I had was throwing strikes there,” he said. “The last month was pretty tough because I’d never in a season thrown until December.”
Not only that, it was a year when Cortes converted from starter to late-inning reliever.
Pitching last year at Class AA West Tennessee, Cortes went 5-4 with a 6.06 earned run average in 16 starts early in the season. He became so disgusted with himself that he told Lance Painter, the West Tennessee pitching coach, that he’d like to become a reliever. In nine relief appearances that followed, he went 1-0 with one save, a 0.71 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 122/3 innings.
“I had always wanted to be a starting pitcher in the big leagues, and it was kind of tough making the change to be a relief pitcher,” Cortes said. “But I think it fits me now.
“I’m a pretty calm, cool person around the guys. But once I cross that white chalk line, I become something else. I’m aggressive. I don’t like losing. I don’t want anybody to hit me, I don’t want anybody on base against me, I don’t want anybody to score on me.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog and his Twitter updates on the team at @kirbyarnold.