Can Cubs' Jake Arrieta keep pitching like an ace? What kind of question is that?

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How good can Jake Arrieta (left) and Jon Lester be compared to other 1-2 rotation punches in baseball?

MESA, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta may have seemed like an overnight success to some people last year, but the Cubs right-hander was as heralded as some of the Cubs’ current hitting prospects before breaking into the majors in 2010, and he was an Opening Day starter for a playoff team in Baltimore before joining the Cubs.

So when a reporter asked him Sunday if even he knew he was capable of that breakout season last year, the pitcher who often talks in full paragraphs was uncharacteristically curt.

“Yeah,” he said flatly. “Since Day 1.”

The ensuing silence and stern look on his face all but said, “Next question.”

In fact, everybody in the American League East knew what Arrieta was capable of doing as he faced them repeatedly with the Orioles for 3 ½ seasons before the midseason trade to the Cubs in 2013 — even if he couldn’t sustain it.

“When he got traded I was kind of surprised,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who was managing division-rival Tampa Bay then. “He’d hit those spurts where you just couldn’t touch him, and then he would get in a little bit of trouble and things would blow up like maybe the fourth or fifth inning. But the stuff was always electric … The talent was there, always.”

In 34 starts as a Cub, since he and reliever Pedro Strop were acquired for flip-guy pitcher Scott Feldman, Arrieta finally unleashed that talent for an extended stretch. Since joining pitching coach Chris Bosio’s staff, he’s 14-7 with a 2.81 ERA in 208 1/3 innings across those starts pitching for last-place Cubs teams.

That included a 10-5, 2.53 season last year that would have ranked him sixth in the NL in ERA if he’d had 5 1/3 more innings to qualify. He was limited to 25 starts after the Cubs took a lengthy, cautious approach with spring shoulder soreness.

If not for a certain $155 million free agent pitcher added to the roster, Arrieta would be looking at a second career Opening Day start.

As it is, he and many in the organization believe if he reproduces last year’s success and stays healthy all year he’s one of the biggest keys to the Cubs taking the major competitive step anticipated this year.

When asked about that after his spring debut Sunday, Arrieta, 29, is quick to mention rotation mates on a potentially deeper starting staff.

“But, yeah,” he said of he and big-money ace Jon Lester, “we know what we need to do to put our team in this thing for the long haul. And I think we will.”

Arrieta sill is looking for his first full season in the majors without a DL stint. His 25 starts in 2014 were a big-league career high. His 176 2/3 innings, including minor-league rehab work, was a pro career high.

“It’s not necessarily anything to prove,” he said earlier in camp. “I just want to continue to build. I did a lot of positive things, and there’s continued room for growth in just about every area.”

This from a guy who rode a power slider and sustained command to no-hit bids in nearly a quarter of his starts last year.

Six times he took a no-hitter at least one out deep into the fifth — twice into the eighth. And he became the first Cub since 1950 to take no-hitters into the sixth inning three times in a season.

“I think it was just a matter of him understanding himself better – how do I do this, how do I breathe properly between pitches when it goes bad?” Maddon said. “What do I do when things start to go sideways a little bit? He’s learned how to do that.”

If this year look anything like 2014 for him, and Lester looks like 155 million bucks, they might rival the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke Dodgers or Felix Hernandez-Hisashi Iwakuma Mariners – or the staff-of-aces Nationals – for top 1-2 rotation punch.

Go ahead. Ask him if he knows he can do that.

“Well, there’s a lot of good staffs out there. There’s good rotations,” said Arrieta, naming all three of those teams.

“But, yeah, I think Jon and I are definitely one of the better ones.”

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