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Crush to judgment: The Orioles' quest for the single-season home run record

It looks like "Murderer's Row" on paper. Now, it's time to find out what it can do when the lights come on. The Orioles have assembled an unprecedented collection of power hitters that could combine to challenge the all-time single-season home run record. They conceivably could field a lineup that features a 25-plus homer guy in every slot in the batting order and as many as five 35-plus guys at the heart of it.

It looks like "Murderers' Row" on paper. Now, it's time to find out what it can do when the lights come on.

The Orioles have assembled an unprecedented collection of power hitters who could combine to challenge the all-time single-season home run record. They could field a lineup that features a 25-plus-homer guy in every slot in the batting order and as many as five 35-plus guys at the heart of it.

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So, will the Orioles bash opposing pitchers into oblivion all year or will they find out that it is possible to have too much of a good thing?

It's hard to imagine their not being one of the most exciting and explosive teams in the major leagues, not when last year's team ranked third in the majors with 217 homers and has been upgraded with a big-time right-handed slugger (Mark Trumbo) and an equally dangerous left-handed power bat (Pedro Alvarez).

"It sure could be," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "If we all stay healthy and all do what we're capable of, yeah, it's a pretty darn good lineup, but it's not as easy to do as it is to say. It's definitely possible, and to have that capability is a good thing."

The math isn't hard to do. If you take the best home run year from each of the eight projected starters who have played in the major leagues and add the totals, the best-case power potential is 260 homers, or just four homers short of the all-time single-season record set by the Seattle Mariners in 1997. That number would break the Orioles' single-season mark of 257, set by the American League Championship Series-bound 1996 team; it stood as the majors' all-time record for just one year.

Is it really necessary to remind anyone in which era all those home runs were hit?

The reason the record seems so approachable is not just the Bunyanesque hitters at the heart of the Orioles lineup.

There's also unknown potential with whichever player earns the starting job in left field and two regulars — Jonathan Schoop and Matt Wieters — coming off injury-affected 2015 seasons.

"You look around this clubhouse and see all these big boys. … It's powerful," Schoop said.

If there is reason to scoff at the likelihood of a record season, it is because the Orioles entered this past offseason with the same offensive priority as the winter before and again did not seriously address it. Executive vice president Dan Duquette went in search of players who would improve on last year's meager on-base percentage (.307) and came back with two more players whose career OBP does not represent significant potential improvement.

Which leads to an obvious question: At what point is there enough power in a lineup to makeOBP irrelevant?

For that matter, is there a point where the Orioles crush the ball so regularly that they can gloss over the other major problem facing the 2016 club — a starting rotation that needs step-up performances from almost everybody?

Lest anyone forget, the Orioles were one of the top power-hitting teams in baseball last year and that wasn't enough to keep them in the AL East race until the end.

The home run potential of this team might be much greater, but center fielder Adam Jones said it would be a mistake to think the Orioles offense can just power-wash one of baseball's toughest divisions.

"The thing is, what we're not going to try and do is rely on" the home run, Jones said. "Obviously, it's a good weapon to have and we have guys that hit line drives and are strong enough to drive it out of the park. We just need to create more runs. If we create them, we'll be able to utilize the home run a lot better.

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"Pitchers, at the end of the day, will have to be careful about everybody, because if you hang anything or leave a fastball over the plate, we have the power to hit the ball out. Everybody has the power to hit the ball everywhere, not just to their pull side."

The depth and power of the Orioles lineup should be intimidating to opposing pitching staffs. There really is no break in it — from the 35-homer guy who probably will be at the top of the lineup (Manny Machado) to the young slugger who might bat ninth (Schoop).

"It could be tough, and not just because of the power," said Chris Davis, who has led the major leagues in home runs two of the past three years, "but I think there's good balance in this lineup both right- and left-handed, from what we've seen so far. We haven't scored a ton of runs [this spring], but you see the body of work.

"It's going to be fun to see what this lineup can do."

The positive impact of all that power goes way beyond frightening the guy 60 feet away and knocking him off the mound. It also takes pressure off the Orioles rotation and creates opportunities for the club's highly regarded bullpen to earn wins and saves in games that might otherwise be over early.

"You look back over the recent years and you see a lot of games that we're losing by two or three runs in the sixth or seventh inning and all of a sudden we're winning by one," premier setup man Darren O'Day said. "From a pitching perspective, if you look at the distribution of wins our bullpen has gotten over the last few years, it's because of the power in our lineup that can score and put up a crooked number at any time.

"You know you're not out of any game because of how quickly things can snowball. It's obviously pretty cool to watch."

The Orioles didn't start flexing their muscles right away in spring training. The club opened with a long winless streak that featured a lot of low-scoring games. Some of that was because of the front-loaded schedule of road games that many of the regulars avoided, but it did take some time for the offensive chemistry to begin to develop.

No one doubted it would.

The Orioles have five starters who have hit at least 33 home runs in a season and seven who have hit at least 23. The hitters projected to be in the lineup have combined for 19 seasons of 25 homers or more.

If everyone stays healthy, the single-season team record is very much in play, but it would resonate only if it is a byproduct of a successful 2016 season.

"The only record I want is to hold up a trophy at the end of the World Series," Jones said. "I don't care about the home run record, man. If we hit 190 home runs and win the whole thing, do you think anybody's going to say anything about our power? I just want to win. I don't give a damn how it happens. We can squeeze 40 times this season. I don't care how. I just want to win."

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