STOCKTON -- Back in 2015, James Kaprielian was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.
The talented right-hander had just completed his third straight dominant season at UCLA and was selected 16th overall by the Yankees in the 2015 MLB Draft. It seemed like he was on the fast track to the big leagues.
However, like many pitchers before him, Kaprielian's career got derailed by injuries. He suffered an elbow injury in 2016 and had to undergo Tommy John surgery the following year, keeping him out of baseball until 2019.
"It's been really hard," Kaprielian told NBC Sports California. "And it still is hard. Everyone has been telling me, 'Be patient, be patient, be patient.' It's been three years and I'm still trying to be patient. I'm positive, though, if I keep working, keep trying to be a good teammate, keep trying to get the guys around me better, keep trying to improve every day, somewhere down the line this is going to benefit me and benefit the guys around me."
Kaprielian joined the A's organization after his Tommy John surgery in 2017 as part of the Sonny Gray trade. After missing two full seasons, the 25-year-old is finally back on the mound this year as a member of the High-A Stockton Ports.
"I feel great," he said. "For starters, it's good to be back here and be with the team, be in the clubhouse and on the bus. I missed all that stuff. It's good to be a part of a team again. ... Obviously, pitching in games and getting back to that competitiveness, that's something I've missed. As an athlete, when that gets taken away from you, it's tough. The past two years have been extremely difficult, not having that. So it feels good to be out here again."
Kaprielian has made four starts for the Ports, going 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. He has recorded 15 strikeouts in 14 innings, compared to just three walks.
"I've felt good," Kaprielian said of his performance. "The biggest thing for me is just finding my timing, rhythm, and the cues, and getting back to that. Once you stop doing it for so long, it's hard for it to just come back right away. But it seems like it has. My stuff feels good. ... I'm excited with the progress, but I'm still very hungry and feel like there's a ways to go for me."
Even through Kaprielian's injury issues, the A's have remained extremely high on their 6-foot-3, 210-pound prospect, believing greatly in his ability.
"His potential is pretty enormous," said assistant general manager/director of player personnel Billy Owens. "You see the physicality. Big names kind of jump out at you, between a Jake Arrieta, Corey Kluber -- that's the body type. Going back to his UCLA days, he led the Pac-12 in strikeouts. There's a long lineage of big-time starters from UCLA in Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Griffin Canning. James Kapriliean fits right in the mix there. It's just a matter of him having that stamina, staying healthy, and accruing innings. But as far as the talent, the sky is the limit."
Kaprielian features four above-average pitches and pinpoint control. While his fastball velocity hasn't completely returned yet following surgery, his curveball, slider, and changeup can all serve as out pitches.
Kaprielian believes the key now is just to keep working hard and stay positive, even if it's not always easy.
"It's hard," he admitted. "But this is my story. I didn't expect this to ever happen. I always thought, 'I take care of my body. I'm never going to get Tommy John.' That's not the way it went. But I'm here now. This is my story. I'm an Oakland A. I'm excited to be here. I love this organization. I want to continue to be the best person I can be and the best teammate I can be and see where it takes me."