In any other organization, namely one without Chris Tillman or Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta could easily pass for a number one pitching prospect.
Great fastball, check. Above-average complimentary pitches, check. Innings eater, check. Bulldog tenacity on the mound, check. History of being a go-to guy, double check.
In fact, with the graduation of Matusz last season (although he didn't pitch enough to revoke his rookie status) Arrieta essentially is the number one pitching prospect NOT in the bigs.
But unlike Tillman or Matusz, Arrieta wasn't always a sure-fire thing.
It seems in the past few years you couldn't see or hear Arrieta's name without commas separating his from Matusz and Tillman. As in "Matusz, Tillman and Arrieta will bring about the Orioles turn around."
But flash back to four years ago. Arrieta was the 20-year old ace of the Texas Christian Horned Frogs team that won the Mountain West Conference. As said ace, he won 14 games for the Frogs, a little more than a third of the 39 that the team won.
He struck out a whopping 111 batters in the same number of innings, and led the team in most pitching categories. His 2.35 ERA was second in conference.
Just like that, Arrieta's name shot up the draft boards, but he wasn't eligible for the draft for another season.
The outlook for his junior season at TCU was about as bright as it could be. He was on award watch lists, and his name was already being trumpeted as a first-round pick.
But, for some reason or another, Arrieta wasn't able to put together the kind of campaign he did in 2006. His numbers were still good (9-3 3.01 ERA), but his strikeouts dipped, and his walks almost doubled. More important, he started the same number of games as the previous year, but pitched nearly 15 innings less.
In addition, his velocity dropped, and his once steady command appeared to be wavering.
As if things weren't going poorly enough (Arrieta dropped out of first-round consideration), the "you know what" hit the fan when Arrieta decided to tab Scott Boras as his representation for the upcoming draft.
Goodbye first-round, hello free-fall!
Luckily for the the O's, Arrieta slipped all the way to the fifth round. In fact, the team had wanted to take the hard-throwing righty earlier, but they had no second or third-round picks. After some hard-ball talks with Arrieta and Boras, the O's were finally able to get the righty on board, with a $1.1 million signing bonus.
The O's were convinced that Arrieta's dip in velocity was just a mirage, and that he was plenty capable of developing into the pitcher most scouts figured he would be after 2006.
However, they played it quite liberally with Arrieta. They threw him right into the fire, letting him try his hand at High-A Frederick, where Arrieta blossomed.
He won league Pitcher of the Year honors, and would have taken home the best ERA and the highest number of strikeouts had he not taken a month off to pitch for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics, where he pitched six shutout innings with seven K's against team China in his lone start.
Every team that passed Arrieta over must have had the same thought: I can't believe we passed on this guy....for FIVE rounds!
Arrieta saw his stock rise immensely after his successful 2008 campaign. Many people even clamored for him to get a shot at one of the Orioles open rotation spots.
But the O's played it conservatively with Arrieta, and bumped him up to Double-A, with a vision of him playing half the season at Bowie, and the other half at Triple-A Norfolk.
Arrieta showed no signs of slowing down at Bowie, and mowed down batters with his repertoire of off-speed pitches and his devastating fastball that can reach 97. After 11 games, Arrieta had six wins, a 2.59 ERA and 70 strikeouts in only 59 innings.
True to their word, the O's bumped him up to Norfolk, where he spent the remainder of the season. The results there weren't nearly as dominating, but he did manage to keep his ERA under 4.00 and he still struck out close to eight batters per nine innings, an impressive number for a starter.
He finished the season with a line of 11-11, a 3.40 ERA, and 148 strikeouts in 150.2 innings. Most of his combined numbers led the organization.
So, here we are in 2010.
Arrieta is currently in big league camp with the O's for Spring Training. Securing a rotation spot appears out of the question at this point, but with the inevitable injuries that occur over the course of a 162-game season, it's almost a given that Arrieta will get a chance to make his Major League debut sometime this year.
And while he may not have the polish of a Brian Matusz, or the perfect pitchers' body or mechanics of a Chris Tillman, Arrieta could very easily end up being the best of the three.
The Orioles will be happy if he can just stick in the Majors.
I have a feeling he will.