SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles pitching prospect Jake Arrieta gets dressed well down the long row of lockers from the projected major league starting rotation, though there was a time not so long ago when a lot of people thought he might be a part of it by now.
He often comes up in conversation alongside Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman as the future nucleus of the Orioles' pitching staff. He was - and still is - prominent on anybody's list of the top pitching prospects trying to crack the major leagues. It just hasn't happened for him yet and, based on the numbers game that everybody plays this time of year, it probably won't happen this spring.
The rotation is all but set, with veteran/mentor Kevin Millwood at the top and Jeremy Guthrie, Matusz, Brad Bergesen and Tillman lined up behind him. There is always the possibility that one of them won't be ready to go Opening Day, of course, but Arrieta isn't necessarily No. 6 on the depth chart, since David Hernandez and Jason Berken are back after extended stays at the major league level last year.
"I don't know what they are planning on doing with me this year," Arrieta said this week. "I think I have as good a shot as anybody. Whether that's true or not, that's the mind-set that I have to have."
It's really difficult to judge how he fits into the big picture at this early point in spring training. While Tillman graduated from the rookie class last year and Matusz jumped from No. 25 to No. 5 on Baseball America's list of the top 100 major league prospects, Arrieta actually slipped from No. 67 to No. 99 in this year's prospect rankings.
Does that mean that his stock has dropped since last year? Manager Dave Trembley says he doesn't think so.
"I don't know how they decided that," Trembley said. "I think he has to be mentioned with the best pitching prospects anywhere."
Maybe it's not so hard to explain. Arrieta posted outstanding numbers and ratios during his first professional season at Single-A A Frederick in 2008. He looked even better in 11 starts at Double-A Bowie last year before facing his first real competitive adversity at Triple-A Norfolk, where he was 5-8 with a 3.93 ERA with a decidedly higher WHIP (ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched) than at the first two minor league levels.
That shouldn't be particularly alarming. The competition gets tougher at every level, but it probably convinced the Orioles that they needed to rein him in after rushing him up the minor league ladder the past two seasons.
"I wouldn't say I moved at too fast a pace," he said. "Obviously, I don't run at Matusz's speed. He's a special guy who can throw four pitches for strikes, and he's very polished. As far as trying to live up to expectations, I like that. It makes me work harder. There are all these people who expect great things from you, and I want to give it to them. If you have a few bumps along the road, that helps you build character."
Arrieta had a few bumps before he got out of spring training last year - the first completely out of his control and the second completely in it. He was one of the players who had his assets frozen during the Stanford Investment Group scandal, though he says he did not end up losing money.
He did, however, lose some respect in the Orioles' spring clubhouse after uncomfortably frank comments about some of his teammates showed up on a personal blog that he mistakenly thought was not available for public consumption. No one confronted him directly, but a veteran teammate printed out the offending entries and distributed them around the clubhouse, putting Arrieta - all of 22 years old - in an awkward position.
"That whole thing never should have happened," he said. "It was a family thing. I got talked into doing it for my family and friends to read because I was having trouble keeping in touch with everybody. It got published, and it caused some problems. It should have been set up privately, but it wasn't, and some fans got hold of it. Everybody really liked it, but there was some personal stuff on it that I didn't want seen by the fans."
Live and learn. The Orioles held a media seminar with the Orioles players Thursday morning, and the public relations staff probably should have let Arrieta give a short lecture on Internet security and propriety.
"Basically," he said ruefully, "don't put stuff up on the Internet that you don't want people to see."
They say you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and when you see Arrieta sitting by himself at his locker while the other young starters are bunched together elsewhere, you have to wonder how long it will take for him to find his place among them.
"I had some ups and downs last year," he said, "but I think the organization and fans will see that I'm better for that."
What they probably won't see is Arrieta starting the season in the major league rotation, but he seems prepared to go back to Triple-A and wait his turn if he can't break through this spring.
"I won't be frustrated if I start at Norfolk," he said. "There are a lot of good players here. It's tough to make a major league roster."