Norris believes the best is yet to come for him and the other members of the rotation.

"I think we all can feed off each other," Norris said. "A lot of our guys are still young enough that they are still heading into the primes of their careers. Chen and Gonzalez and Tillman and myself, we still have a lot of years ahead of us. And that goes for Ubaldo, too."

Norris is projected as the fifth starter, and yet he has made 127 major league starts; he's a year removed from the Opening Day assignment for the Astros. It's a huge departure from when the Orioles filled out the bottom of the rotation with guys straight up from Double-A.

"In the past, it has been last man standing. And in some cases the lesser of two evils," Showalter said. "It's one thing to have depth; it's another to have quality depth."

Perhaps the biggest difference between this year's pitching staff and those in the past is the quality and experience of the pitchers beyond the projected five. Last year, the Orioles had 14 pitchers make starts; 10 started at least five games. Most are still in the organization, and the backup is creating a logjam of potential starters at Triple-A or in the Orioles bullpen.

They also added two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who hopes to be recovered from shoulder surgery by June, and accomplished South Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon, who will begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk. Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy also could be pitching in games this summer after elbow surgery last June.

Britton, who has made 46 big league starts in his career, including seven last year for the Orioles, is out of options and has been stashed in the bullpen along with Brian Matusz, who ultimately wants to return to the rotation but has excelled as a left-handed reliever.

Steve Johnson, Kevin Gausman and T.J. McFarland, who all made starts for the Orioles in 2013, will begin the season at Norfolk.

"If you look at our rotation the last couple years, it has been guys who have been fighting to establish themselves as maybe the fifth guy," Johnson said. "Really, those guys are now the sixth, seventh or eighth guys. It's maybe tougher to make the team for a guy like myself, but it is also a good thing to have for the team as a whole."

Although the starting spots aren't immediately there for guys like Britton and Johnson, they've been in the organization long enough to know that opportunities arise, and the Orioles are willing to promote from within.

"When was the last time we've gone a season with five starters? You have to seize opportunities, whether it's at the beginning of camp or in August and September," said Britton, who can't be sent to Norfolk without passing through waivers. "And if we stay with the same five guys, well, that's something good. Because those teams usually win the World Series when they have the same five guys rolling out there and staying healthy."

New man in charge

One other wrinkle to the rotation is its new general, veteran pitching coach Dave Wallace, who in his career has steered four other major league staffs: the Houston Astros (2007), Boston Red Sox (2003-2006), New York Mets (1999-2000) and Los Angeles Dodgers (1995-1997).

Each group is different, he said, but this rotation reminds him of the ones he had in Los Angeles, given the talent and upside.

"When I was in L.A. in the mid-'90s, we had a real young rotation, with Pedro Astacio, Ramon Martinez, Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdez," Wallace said. "Those were four pretty young guys and pretty good pitchers. So the experience is there for me with young guys learning at the big league level."

So can this rotation be that good? Can it be better? Can it leave behind a decade of being an Achilles' heel and become a strength as the Orioles try to ascend in the AL East?

"We'll see. You've got some guys that are established and have come up and pitched well, and there are some others who, in the last year or two, have come into their own," Wallace said. "So if they continue to develop, I think it has a chance to be a solid rotation.

"If you have your same five guys going out there and hopefully going a little deeper in games and not taxing the bullpen as much, that's the goal. Once that happens, all the other stuff pretty much takes care of itself."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

Low rotation

The Orioles rotation hasn't ranked above 21st in the major leagues in ERA since 2000, and it has finished last twice in that span.

Rotation ERA MLB rank
2013 4.57 27
2012 4.42 21
2011 5.39 30
2010 4.67 28
2009 5.37 29
2008 5.51 30
2007 4.86 21
2006 5.40 29
2005 4.82 23
2004 5.05 23
2003 4.86 22
2002 4.95 23
2001 4.83 21
2000 5.28 23

Source: ESPN.com