With 409 professional innings under his belt, Jake Arrieta isn't a prospect. As one of the major acquisitions over the past 12 months, however, and as someone who remains more potential than performance at this point, we felt it was worth it to take a look at his 2013 and try to get a sense of what he may or may not become for the Cubs down the road.
A 27 year old right hander taken in the fifth round of the 2007 draft by the Orioles, Arrieta worked his way through the Orioles' farm system and arrived in Baltimore in June 2010. Along the way he would rack up impressive strikeout totals (posting 10.68 and 7.66 K/9 rates between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk as a 23 year old in 2009), sterling ERAs (sub-3.00 ERAs at both high-A and and Double-A, and a 1.85 mark in his second go at Norfolk in 2010), and iffy walk rates (Arrieta owns a career 3.8 minor league BB/9). Baseball America ranked him the 67th best prospect in the game after his debut 2008 season, falling to #99 a year later due to a lackluster first go at AAA.
Arrieta spent his first two seasons as a big leaguer being not much good at anything. His walk rates continued to be terrible, walking more than 10% of his batters faced in both 2010 and 2011, leading to FIPs of 4.76 and 5.34, respectively, and 0.9 and 0.0 WAR seasons. 2012 offered some promise of development, as his strikeout rate rebounded (8.56 K/9, 22%), he cut his walk rate nearly in half (2.75 BB/9, 7.1%), and posted a 4.05 FIP that was almost a run and a half lower than the year previous. His ERA swelled to over 6 thanks to a godawful strand rate (57.3%), but he still managed a 1.6 WAR season, and began 2013 looking to shed a rep as a Quad-A player.
The promise of 2012 faded quickly for Arrieta, who was terrible in 4 April starts for Baltimore before being banished back to Norfolk. He allowed a total of 20 runs and 17 walks in 23.2 innings for Baltimore before the Orioles dealt him to the Cubs along with Pedro Strop in the Scott Feldman trade. Over the course of 2013, his walk rate has ballooned once more to a hair south of 5 per nine. His HR/FB rate, while down from the ~15% mark he'd posted the past two seasons, is still an awful 12.3%, allowing more than one per nine. His ground ball rate stinks, his BABIP is unsustainably low (.239 compared to a career .284 mark), and he's FIPing at a 4.84 mark on the year. He's found a bit more success since the trade, offering 5 quality starts out of 9 attempts for the Cubs and a 3.66 ERA in 51.2 innings, but has still walked 24 against only 37 Ks since switching leagues.
All in all, while the Cub portion of Arrieta's 2013 season has looked acceptable enough, it looks like he's done it with smoke and mirrors, and there's little in the numbers that suggests much reason to get excited about him long term.
Arrieta mainly throws five pitches, though he added a cutter in 2012 that he's mixed in about 1% of the time since. Mostly Arrieta works off of his two fastballs, a four-seamer and a sinker, both of which sit about 93 mph. He also throws a curveball and slider with regularity, and an infrequently used changeup that's a clear level or two below his other offerings.
There's a lot of pro opinion out there on Arrieta, so let's dig into that a bit, eh? Here's what B-Pro had to say in April when Arrieta was sent back down to AAA-Norfolk:
After 62 starts spread over parts of four seasons it's time to ask: When do you move Arrieta to the bullpen? The 27-year-old heads to Norfolk as the big-league leader in walks issued, having granted 16 free passes in 19 innings. Arrieta is a big, physical guy with a pair of good fastballs and the ability to maintain his velocity deep into games. Unfortunately, his command and control leave everyone wanting. There's probably a good reason why the O's have abstained from throwing Arrieta in the bullpen—perhaps he can't warm up quick enough, or they can't bring themselves to give up on his starting days…For now it's worth asking the question. Starting just isn't working.
And in analyzing the trade to the Cubs post-deadline:
[Arrieta's] got a big fastball and was a top 100 prospect at 23, but he hasn’t shown the pitchability to get batters out a third time through the order, or the changeup to handle lefties. He's 27, past the age at which he can ask for patience. That all makes him a potential bullpen reclamation.
That same piece links to a really interesting MASN Sports column about Arrieta and what's potentially wrong with him. One interesting quote from it:
"I think Arrieta, when he gets in trouble, goes a little too hard and it snowballs on him. He doesn't pitch and he loses his composure. He just panics."
This, more or less, is the book on Arrieta everywhere; fantastic stuff with no command, and an approach to pitching that doesn't reflect a guy that trusts his top-tier stuff (sounds pretty Marmol-esque, to me, for whatever that's worth). Just about every scouting report will mention how Arrieta might have a dominant future in the bullpen if a team ever tries him out.
Barring some semi-miraculous, Cliff Lee-style evaporation of his walk rate, Arrieta doesn't seem to have much of a future as a major-league starter. He's had more success since joining the Cubs, but even the quality starts look to be fairly smoke and mirrors, fueled by a low BABIP and lofty aspirations. Most everyone agrees he's got the stuff to succeed as a late-inning reliever, but that last quote above raises questions for me about makeup, and whether or not he has the personality that can handle blowing an eighth or ninth inning lead without taking it with him into his next appearance.
As far as next season goes, his solid superficial numbers since the trade might earn him a few starts next season, especially if Theo and Company decide to shoot for 2015 instead of 2014. Whenever the organization decides to really try to contend, however, you'd have to think Arrieta would fall into a bullpen/6th starter role, with the potential to earn more high-leverage late-inning work as the year progresses.