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Orioles season preview: A team that will go as far as the starting rotation will take them

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The Orioles have assembled an offense that will rain down home runs all year long ... and they're going to need it, because the starting pitching situation is not good.

The Orioles could win the World Series this year. They probably won't, because only one team can win the World Series each year and even teams who everyone agrees will be very good will end up losing at some point. The Orioles are not a team expected to be good, but then, they weren't expected to be good in 2012 when they surged to a wild card spot, nor in 2014 when they romped through the American League East, either.

A lot of things will have to go right for the Orioles to win the World Series, or even return to the postseason. It could happen, though, and that's still exciting for O's fans who are not so far removed from 14 straight losing seasons, most of which were already in "Maybe next year!" mode before spring training had even ended.

Many things did not go right for the O's last year. They were lucky to end up with an 81-81 record, winning their last five games only after two different opponents, the Yankees and Blue Jays, openly stopped caring about contesting regular season games once their postseason berths were secured. If things go wrong again, 81-81 looks a lot like the ceiling for this team instead of the underachieving result that it was last year.

What has changed?

The short answer is not much. In some ways, after the 2012 Orioles started winning almost by accident, it seems like Dan Duquette's goal has been to keep as much of that team together for as long as possible to keep the magic going.

The Orioles were not built to start winning at that time, but they won anyway. They also weren't built to keep winning at that time, so it's been a frantic patch job every year since. In 2014, the patches worked. In other years, they have not. Will 2016 be another year where things come together or another year where fatal flaws cause the team to fizzle?

Key Departures: Wei-Yin Chen

Key Retentions: Chris Davis, Darren O'Day, Matt Wieters

Key Arrivals: Yovani Gallardo, Mark Trumbo, Hyun Soo Kim, Pedro Alvarez

At the start of the offseason, when Wieters joined a handful of other players to become the first ever to accept the qualifying offer, that was something to dread. That felt like it would handcuff the team from pursuing other goals in free agency. How little we knew.

As it turned out, the Orioles committed the fourth-most guaranteed free agent money in baseball. Their 2016 Opening Day payroll will be about $152 million, which is $33 million more than where they opened last season, according to Cot's Contracts.

With that extra money they kept their own key free agents in Davis and O'Day, and they were linked at some time or another to just about every free agent outfielder, including Dexter Fowler, whom everyone thought would be signing here until he pulled a heel turn and showed up at Cubs camp in Arizona instead. That was really weird.

The O's had to settle for Alvarez instead, a low-average, high-dinger player who, like trade acquisition Trumbo, has effectively been an Oriole for his entire career and now will get to achieve his destiny.

How it all goes wrong

The Orioles had the second-worst starting rotation by ERA in the AL last season, posting a grotesque 4.53 combined ERA. From that group, they lost Chen, the only good starter on the team. With Kevin Gausman already looking like he'll miss at least the opening of the season due to shoulder tendinitis, things seem to be pointing towards "mess" already.

They might be even worse. The combined ERA for the five projected Orioles starting pitchers, through Sunday's spring training contest, is 11.51. That is 58 earned runs over 45.1 innings pitched. I probably should have put a surgeon general's warning on this post. Sorry.

There are a host of players waiting in the wings to take up rotation spots if need be, including Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Vance Worley, but this depth exists in the same way that quicksand has depth. Once you experience it, you are already dead.

Along with the rotation, there's plenty to worry about with a feast-or-famine offense. The Orioles were horrible against left-handed pitching last season and few of their additions have addressed that deficiency. If the home runs aren't landing, or if they're limited to solo shots because only two players on the team have good OBP skills, they could have big problems.

How it all goes right

The Orioles need bounce-backs from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, and they need the great leap forward from Gausman. In some ways, it seems like the O's committed a quarter-billion dollars in free agent contracts this offseason just in hopes that they'd still have good players if Tillman, Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez don't suck this year and next year. That's actually kind of a terrifying concept.

But if those bounce-backs happen, the usual suspects of human and computer prognosticators will again be left sputtering and excuse-making over how badly they blew their O's predictions.

There is also the possibility that, more often than not, the offense hits "feast" rather than "famine." The Orioles hit 217 home runs last season and that was with black holes at shortstop, in right field and at designated hitter. Shortstop probably hasn't been resolved, with J.J. Hardy rehabbing a labrum tear in his non-throwing shoulder.

The other spots, however, will now be inhabited by Trumbo and Alvarez. The Orioles could end up with seven players hitting 20+ home runs and as many as five with 30 or more. Everyone makes mistakes, and when pitchers do against the Orioles, they will be destroyed.

Another thing that should help the Orioles overachieve their expectations is their bullpen, which you almost kind of take for granted. O'Day and closer Zach Britton are a powerful duo in the eighth and ninth innings, and based on last year's performance, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens should make it a formidable quartet. Most of the time they get a lead, they should hold it.

Prospects to watch

There aren't any. Next!

More seriously, the Orioles farm system, which has consistently ranked in the bottom third in MLB, doesn't have any players who figure to make a big impact on the 2016 season, although that hasn't stopped a modest hype train from building up steam for Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard.

The O's will be watching to see how their few potential future contributors develop. Pitching prospect Hunter Harvey's return from injury will be important for 2017 and beyond. So will be the progression both at the plate and behind the plate for catching prospect Chance Sisco, who could be the Wieters replacement after this year.

The biggest question mark surrounds Dylan Bundy, who, out of options, will be like a second Rule 5 pick on the roster this year. Bundy has pitched well in the spring and has already generated some buzz about potential late-season starts, but that's a long way away for a guy who's combined for 63.1 innings in the last three seasons.

Prediction

All of the spring training stats will be wiped away on Opening Day, but what's there right now has not been inspiring from the rotation. That is an understatement. Without improvement from that group, it's hard to see this team making the big leap forward. Grim as it is to contemplate, the unit could be even worse than it was last year.

It's increasingly difficult to imagine the Orioles will even be able to get themselves to at least 81 wins again, no matter how many runs the offense is capable of scoring. Only a madman or a fool could predict such an outcome.

Yet the Orioles seem to have a way of validating the madmen and the fools in recent years. Greatness will probably prove elusive, although it is possible if the stars align just right. I predict a record of 82-80, symbolically one better than last season and a winning season once again. They will probably disappoint me, as they did last year.

Maybe by season's end the Orioles will even give us reason to believe that next year's starting rotation will be better than this one.