By Jim Henneman
When things go wrong in the toy department, everybody has a theory, or so it seems. That certainly is the case with Orioles pitcher Jake Arrieta, who doesn't lack for advisers who know what's wrong -- or at least know how the Orioles should deal with the explosive, but erratic, right-hander.
From the day he arrived at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Arrieta was anointed as an ace in training, the leader of a brash new brand of young hurlers who would enable the Orioles to break the lease they held on the basement dwellings of the American League East.
Arrieta went 6-6 and 10-8 his first two years with the Orioles, pitching for a couple of bad teams. He sent off alternately positive and negative vibes, which tormented the fans and management alike.
Some people may have forgotten, but Arrieta's baptism in baseball was one by fire. He has pitched the O's home opener three years in a row -- not so much because he deserved it, but because he was the best option. Before making his big league debut in 2010, he pitched 336.2 innings in the minor leagues, which was enough to get his feet wet, but hardly enough to master his craft.
When the Orioles sent Arrieta back to the minor leagues earlier this week, his resume showed 353.1 innings pitched in the major leagues. He came to the Orioles in 2010 after going 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk, looking every bit the part of a potential staff ace.
But here's the real problem, one that even those who should know better tend to overlook: Arrieta never spent a full season at either of the top rungs on the minor league ladder. He had one full year at Single-A Frederick (2008), split the 2009 season between Double-A Bowie and Norfolk, then got the call to the big leagues the following year after 11 starts at Triple-A.
In case you didn't notice, or might have forgotten, the Orioles have forced a similar path on some of the club's other pitchers, such as Brian Matusz, Zach Britton and -- to a lesser degree -- Chris Tillman. Tillman at least used up all three of his options, as opposed to Arrieta, whose promotion came before he'd ever even been on the 40-man roster.
It's hard to comprehend, but at the age of 25 after signing out of high school, Tillman is in his eighth season of professional ball. But only once has he spent an entire season with one team -- 2008, his first year in the Orioles organization, which he spent with Bowie. In 2006 and 2007, when he was in Seattle's organization, and from 2009-12, when he bounced between Baltimore and its minor league affiliates, he played at different levels, with varying degrees of success and failure.
Arrieta's case is somewhat different from Tillman's, because he came to pro ball from a competitive college program -- Texas Christian University. For every Stephen Strasburg, who has become the ace of the Washington Nationals' staff after a successful collegiate career at San Diego State, there are 10 others with similar backgrounds out there who are still trying to find their way.
Arrieta is at a point when his career should be on the upswing, but the brutal truth is that, at the age of 27, he still has another minor league option left -- an option that could have been put to better use three years ago.
His situation is as much or more of an indictment of how the organization monitored his progress as it is of his inability to live up to the lofty expectations he and the Orioles still have.
It could be that Arrieta won't realize his potential in Baltimore. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened in this game, and it surely wouldn't be the last. It also could be that he won't ever fulfill his potential.
But know this -- there is no dearth of potential takers if the Orioles decide to cut ties. It's safe to say that as many as half the teams in the big leagues would put Arrieta in the rotation tomorrow. The problem is they are all working on the buy-low theory, looking for a quick steal.
That's not likely to happen. Unless Arrieta is part of a package, which isn't beyond the realm of possibility, the Orioles will ride it out with him until they're convinced he can't succeed in Baltimore.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Posted April 23, 2013