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Schmuck: Orioles fans will have to trade expectations for intrigue this spring

The Orioles are going to open spring training this week and — quite understandably for beleaguered O’s fans — workouts will begin at the Ed Smith Stadium complex under a cloud of apprehension.

Everyone knows that the organization had to push the reset button. Nobody could possibly question that after a 2018 season during which the Orioles lost a record 115 games and watched attendance drop to a four-decade non-strike-year low.

So, Dan Duquette tore down the team last July and new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias arrived with a mandate to change everything but the concession menu at Camden Yards. He’s still in the midst of an organizational overhaul that has had to be conducted in a condensed time frame, but it’s time to break out the bats and balls.

Now, we’re about to get the answer to the question that has been on the minds of just about everyone who suffered through last year’s collapse and waved goodbye to almost all of the popular veteran players who carried the team during the salad years of the Duquette/Buck Showalter era:

What’s this going to look like?

It’s obviously not going to be very pretty, and I’m certainly not alone in that opinion. The PECOTA projection that was released last week by Baseball Prospectus has the O’s losing a major league-high 105 games, which seems conservative when you consider that last year’s team lost 10 more than that with a lot of quality veteran players on the roster for the first four months of the season.

Of course, PECOTA and the other preseason prognosticators dramatically underrated the Orioles from 2012 to 2016 and I took great joy in pointing that out each year at this time, but you really don’t need a bunch of sophisticated analytical tools to see that the Orioles are in no position to compete with the beasts of the American League East this year, or anyone else for that matter.

But the final number on the right side of the win-loss column isn’t going to mean anything at this initial stage of the long-term rebuilding program. And it still wouldn’t mean anything if the baby Orioles overachieved and lost only 88 games.

The O’s are supposed to lose this year which — strangely enough — is the reason why this season needs to be disconnected from 2018 in the minds of the fans. Last year’s team was believed to be a wild card contender when the season began, so the implosion of those expectations contributed to a malaise that — along with some other long-term factors — contributed to the miserable attendance total.

It might be fair to speculate that this year’s attendance will be even lower, but the lack of any expectation that this young roster, which could get even younger by Opening Day, is going to be competitive presents an opportunity for disenchanted fans to start over along with the team.

Camden Yards still boasts a ballpark experience that ranks among the best anywhere and the new course that the organization is taking with Elias and a more analytics-based baseball operation should create a different kind of intrigue for dedicated Orioles fans.

When the Orioles officially open pitcher-catcher workouts on Wednesday, they will do so with an almost-blank canvas. There will be competition for positions all over the field and openings on a pitching staff that features just three veteran starters (for now) as well as all sorts of opportunity in the bullpen.

There will be a few veteran storylines. Chris Davis will be under a microscope this spring, for obvious reasons, and it’s possible that Elias will try to dump some more payroll.

It’s also possible that Elias will look for a bargain or two in a free agent market that still features dozens of players, many of whom will end up signing one-year deals. A certain former center fielder is still out there, too, but that ship apparently has sailed.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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