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The Orioles missed Nelson Cruz this year, but not as much as they missed good starting pitching

Adam Jones made comments to Orioles media before Thursday's game in which he hinted that the absence of Nelson Cruz was a big problem for the O's this year. That doesn't quite hit the mark.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The corner outfield spots have been a near-complete failure for the Orioles in the 2015 season. With the O's having had two corner outfielders depart in free agency from last year, it's been easy for many people to connect those dots and assign the blame for this season's disappointment on a front office, or on ownership, that did not spend money to keep Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis on the team.

On the unfiltered parts of the Orioles media sphere like talk radio callers, Facebook commenters, and irate Twitter users with egg portraits, this has been a continual refrain through the season. There are those people who believe that the strange Dan Duquette Toronto saga caused him to not make any big moves over the offseason, as if they haven't noticed his previous pattern of offseason tinkering. The low-level noise from the segment of people who think Peter Angelos being a cheap owner is the Orioles problem is regrettably continuous.

Not even star players on the Orioles are immune to sounding like they sympathize with this camp. Going back to the offseason after those players departed, Adam Jones seemed to be displeased with the way the front office handled things this offseason. Remember the Great Mystery Tweet. Holding court before Tuesday's postponed game against the Blue Jays, Jones spoke about the coming offseason and said, among other things, "Hopefully I can influence some officials to spend some money."

Revisiting the topic before Thursday's game, it seems clear Jones wants some of that money to be spent on Chris Davis. More than just that, Jones seems to believe the absence of Cruz is what cost the O's this year. "You can't replace 40 (home runs)," he told reporters. "That's been proven by this year's offense." That statement makes for a great snap quote and a great soundbite. Whether it is supported by the facts is another question.

How to replace 40 home runs in two easy steps

Before using Jones' comment as a platform to jump elsewhere, I'd like to note that I'm sure Jones is as aware as you and I that the biggest problem for the O's this year was the struggles of the starting rotation. He wasn't asked about that when he gave the above quote; he answered what he was asked. He wants to keep Davis, and he's definitely right that the Orioles will be a worse team next year compared to right now without Davis. Plus, Jones isn't the kind of guy to go out and bash specific teammates in the media.

Having said that, Jones is off the mark in what he said. You can see that displayed very simply in the fact that the Orioles, in Thursday's game against the Jays, exceeded their regular season home run total from 2014. They now have 212 home runs as a team. Last year they hit 211. They did manage to replace 40. They were able to do so almost entirely thanks to Davis and Manny Machado hitting 19 and 20 more home runs than last year, respectively. That's how you replace 40.

That's not to say that the Orioles wouldn't have been a better team with Cruz this year. Given that they are dead last in the AL in on-base percentage and Markakis is inexplicably posting a career high OBP in his first year in Atlanta, they even would have been better with him still on the team. There's no longer a doubt the O's would have been a better team with those guys this year. Even with the dueling black holes of suck in the outfield corners, the O's have nearly matched their offensive output from last season. Without those problems, their bats would have collectively been a real force.

Still, even with that outfield problem fixed, the Orioles, unless they managed to hit like this year's Jays, would probably not have been ticketed for the postseason. The problem was and remains the starting rotation performing poorly. In the absence of a Royals-esque pact with Satan, you're not going to get very far with a rotation that puts up a 4.55 ERA, the second-worst mark in the AL.

There was certainly a long stretch of games where a lack of timely hitting, or any hitting at all, seemed to plague the O's. In one egregious three game stretch at the beginning of July, the Orioles lost three consecutive games by these scores: 2-0, 1-0, 3-2. For all that I've harped on the pitching staff, those were games they did fine and the offense lost. There were six games in July where the team allowed three runs or fewer and still lost. They've lost 20 such games over the whole season.

That sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. But even last year's 96-win O's team had 15 losses that fit in this category. Baseball is a hard game. A team can, and often will, play well and still lose. It is, after all, a game of failure.

Sometimes a team can hit well but not pitch well and that's why they lose. This year's edition of the O's has lost 15 games in which they scored five or more runs. The 2014 O's lost nine such games.

Would the retention of one power hitter have changed so much? Anything's possible for a hypothetical scenario, but it doesn't seem likely. You can flip the outcome of six of these well-pitched, low-scoring games to Orioles wins and they'd still be sweating out the last weekend - they'd be tied with Houston for the second wild card spot, nowhere close to repeating as AL East champions.

It's all about run prevention, baby

The problem for the Orioles is that last year they only allowed 593 runs all season. This year they have given up 684 runs and counting. It's quite possible they'll end up surrendering over a hundred more runs than they did in their runaway division-winning season. That's how you go from a heartbreaking loss in the ALCS to a team that sputters to a just below .500 mark at the finish line.

Before I depart, I'd like to return to the comments made by Jones. While he was not correct in saying that this year's offense is proof that you can't replace 40 home runs, this line of thinking does have some merit when looking towards next year's team. They essentially replaced Cruz's 40, but could the 2016 Orioles replace Davis hitting 45 without Davis himself returning?

Well, maybe they could. If there's one bit of silver lining in the Orioles' failure to assemble any kind of competent-hitting corner outfield or DH solution, it's that there's significant room for improvement for next year.

If we indulge in a flight of fancy that the O's could find some first baseman to hit 20 home runs (not a sure thing) and that Jonathan Schoop could continue his pace from this year and end up with 30 home runs (15 more than this year, also no sure thing), now we're suddenly only looking to crank out an extra 10 home runs from those same positions that were colossal disaster areas this year. They can't possibly fail to cobble together some competent options for so many different positions next year, right? Right?

Guys? Are you still there?

Still, if Davis comes back, or if he doesn't and they somehow patch together something resembling a replacement for his home run total, it's not going to matter if the O's have an awful starting rotation again next year. And as things stand right now, help is not on the way for that unit. The only good starting pitcher for the O's this year is also the only one of them who's a pending free agent.

When Jones is talking to "some officials" about spending money, here's hoping he reminds them to get some starting pitchers who aren't going to get lit up by the American League East.