Oriole Park at Camden Yards prepares to open its gates for the Orioles home opener this Friday. (Dwayne Allen/Baltimore Sun video)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When the Orioles open the regular season this afternoon at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team they outlasted in the final days of the 2012 regular season to earn the franchise's first playoff spot in 15 years, they will field a team nearly identical to last year's.

To many experts, the club's reluctance to make expensive free-agent signings or trade for high-profile reinforcements this offseason was reason to predict a regression from the Orioles' 93 wins.

But fans such as Brian Chirdon and Dori Prin of Pasadena, who plan to attend today's season opener, are excited to see the same group that authored a storybook 2012 season back for a sequel.

"It's great that we have homegrown talent, guys like [Matt] Wieters, Manny Machado," said Chirdon, 34. "It has that Cal Ripken feel that they're going to be here a while. You can see them grow in their play and you connect with them. That's your town, your team.

"The Yankees, there are years when they buy their way to the playoffs, but it's a team game, so I think the continuity is actually worth more," he added. "Look at the Red Sox last year. It's better when you build a team."

The Orioles' young corps includes such franchise cornerstones as center fielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis, the catcher Wieters and third baseman Machado. The Orioles weren't as active as their American League East rivals in bringing in new players this winter, but they re-signed spark-plug outfielder Nate McLouth and gave key reliever Darren O'Day a contract extension.

Add in a pitching staff that came together despite just one starter making more than 20 starts, the improved health of key players such as outfielder Nick Markakis, second baseman Brian Roberts and outfielder Nolan Reimold, and a full season of Machado, who solidified the team's defense after being called up from the minors in August, and the Orioles believe they can sustain last year's success.

"I don't know if we can replicate the performance of the team in one-run games," said executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, alluding to the team's 29-9 record last season in games decided by a single run. "But I do know that we're bringing back the core of the group from a year ago and the ball club that we had at the end of the season was a good defensive team. And we've continued to build our pitching staff and our defense and the core players are young [and] they should continue to improve their offensive capabilities."

The only newcomers on the Orioles' 25-man Opening Day roster are left-handed reliever T.J. McFarland and reserve infielder Alexi Casilla, who both came at a low cost this offseason.

The Orioles' projected payroll has risen to about $91 million, according to USA Today, but the 12 percent bump from Opening Day last year mostly comes from returning players getting increases based on their big league tenure and accomplishments.

During spring training, Orioles manager Buck Showalter scoffed at the notion that last year was a fluke and that the same players would struggle to repeat their performances. Over the grind of a 162-game schedule, flaws are exposed, and in building this team, Duquette and Showalter paid special attention to creating a group that would mesh over a long season and stay hungry and united. The club also used 52 different players during the season, so having roster flexibility and players ready for their chance to contribute was critical.

"In our season, it holds up if you hold yourself to a high standard and you don't give in," Showalter said. "Our guys never gave in last year. Let's face it, you've got to get a return for it or otherwise it's beating on deaf ears. And they got a return for it. They like things that separate them from the others. I ask them all the time, 'What are you willing to do to get us from where we are to where we want to be? What are you really, really willing to do? Are you willing to go the extra mile?'"

While many pundits have predicted the Orioles to miss the playoffs this year, some say the Orioles can compete in a division that might be as tough as it has ever been from top to bottom.

"The Orioles have as good a chance as any team of winning the AL East," said ESPN writer and television analyst Tim Kurkjian. "They will not win in the same way that they did last year, but they will find another way to win. Their pitching is better than people think. Their lineup is healthier than last year. They will win 90 games."

Yahoo Sports columnist Tim Brown said he predicts 88 wins and a wild-card berth for the Orioles. He said the Orioles were best served by not going after a big-ticket free-agent pitcher.

"I'm not sure if Orioles management resisted the temptation to upgrade in the starting rotation and in the outfield or enthusiastically stayed the course that last season brought 93 wins," Brown said. "Either way, and while [I was] surprised, I liked it.

"The rotation remains a deep concern, but there will be solutions come June and July, if not before, beginning with [top prospect] Dylan Bundy," Brown added. "The [alternative] … clearly — and smartly — isn't the Orioles' direction."

Fox Sports senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal picked the Orioles third in the AL East and to win anywhere between 82 and 88 games, which likely wouldn't be enough for a postseason berth. Still, Rosenthal said the team's pitching depth, including the looming big league additions of top prospects Bundy and Kevin Gausman, makes the Orioles intriguing.

"I actually like the Orioles more than I thought I would at the start of the spring," Rosenthal said. "Don't get me wrong: I'm in the camp that believes their one-run and extra-inning records are essentially unsustainable. But one thing that Showalter proved last season is that he can cycle through starters until he finds the right solutions, and this season the team sets up the same way."

"The Orioles don't have an ace," Rosenthal added. "They might not even have a legitimate No. 2 starter. But unlike most teams, they've got options — and I'm really intrigued by the possibility of Gausman and/or Bundy giving them a jolt in May. I'm also interested to see their offense with a full year of Machado, the return of Roberts and the improving health of Markakis and Reimold. … A few breaks, the right trade, and they could be in really good shape."

Regardless of the outcome, it's clear that it's an exciting time to be an Orioles fan — and those supporters are excited to see this group of players back in action.

"I've loved the Orioles for a long time, but I like the team they have right now," said 11-year-old Sully Gholson, a former Severna Park resident now living in Reston, Va.

Gholson was in Sarasota, Fla., last week with his father, Kris, catching one of the team's final spring training tune-ups.

"I think they've done fine. I think they're ready to do big things," he said. "I had gotten used to them losing, but finally they started winning and once they made it to the playoffs, I was allowed to stay up late to watch every game."

eencina@baltsun.com

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