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Orioles begin spring training again facing a field of low external expectations

When the first wave of returning Orioles officially reported to spring training Thursday, they found the Ed Smith Stadium complex much as they left it last April. Everything was familiar, including the low expectations that seem to follow them south each year.

There are some legitimate reasons for that, as well as some illegitimate ones. The Orioles will begin spring workouts Friday morning with their share of question marks — particularly regarding their starting rotation — and it's probably fair to say they aren't measurably better than they were at the end of their .500 season in 2015.

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Not yet, at least.

What is not fair is the presumption in some quarters that they will finish well below .500 and last in the American League East, especially when so many preseason baseball analyses are based more on what happened during the first half of the offseason than the last.

The one thing that's certain is that the insulting predictions — the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections have the Orioles winning just 72 games — are right in manager Buck Showalter's wheelhouse. He might say that he wants Orioles fans to have high expectations, but he loves it when everybody else is underestimating his team.

"I think he tells all of them to say that stuff," veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy joked. "'None of you had better project us to be good this year!' I bet he talks to them and tells them not to. He knows all of them."

Showalter acknowledges he sees some humor in it, but concedes that the constant drumbeat of negative national publicity gets tiresome.

"So that means that we should just stop, maybe … quit working?" he said. "Coming down here on the plane, you go through the airport and everybody picks up something to read in the newsstand and you notice all the prediction magazines are out. It's that time of year. Of course, I don't buy them or read them. Our curiosity is always satisfied."

The Orioles certainly have no right to consider themselves a division favorite, but they do have one of the best managers in baseball (maybe ever), one of the best bullpens in the game and an offensive lineup that should turn the Camden Yards flag court and bleachers into hard-hat areas.

Sometimes, it seems as if the baseball intelligentsia simply looks on the past four years as some kind of trick of the light, as if the Orioles won more regular-season games than any other AL team over that period because of the unexplainable alchemy created by Showalter and baseball operations guru Dan Duquette.

Since that chemistry failed them — sort of — last season, it's probably easy enough to look at their shallow minor league talent pool and decide that the club's three-year renaissance ended in the 2014 American League Championship Series and last year's .500 record was the mark of a team trending in the other direction.

That's just not logical.

If anything, the opposite is a more reasonable assumption. The Orioles had three straight winning seasons and then sagged during a year when several starting pitchers regressed and the power-packed offensive lineup did not have enough on-base efficiency to cut the rotation any slack. The proof of that was in the team's poor record in low-scoring games.

To be fair, on-base percentage might be a problem again this year. It certainly will be one of Showalter's points of emphasis during camp. Duquette hopes that he addressed it to some degree with the signing of South Korean star Hyun Soo Kim, but there's really no way to accurately predict how well Kim will handle major league pitching.

The Orioles obviously will not be at a loss for power and run-production potential. They brought back Chris Davis, will likely have a healthy Matt Wieters and Jonathan Schoop all season and added big bopper Mark Trumbo to the mix. Manny Machado is coming off a terrific season and Adam Jones is in his prime. There is some question about the overall health of Hardy, but he has had time to rest and rebound from last year's nagging issues.

There is little question that the Orioles will have a dynamic offensive attack that should guarantee, at the very least, a very entertaining season. Their ability to compete for the AL East title remains uncertain because of a pitching situation that is difficult to analyze.

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Is it likely that all four of the returning starters will take a big step forward this season after underperforming in 2015?

Nope.

Is it probable that a couple of them will?

Quite.

"The way I see it is, our pitchers maybe underperformed a little bit last year and that's not who they are," Hardy said. "I think they'll go out there and prove what they are capable of."

Though it's impossible to deny that a worst-case scenario is also in play, the Orioles appear to have enough talent to avoid a sharp downturn this year, even if their dramatically increased offseason spending didn't convince their critics.

"We finished .500 last year and we played bad, had some injuries," Hardy said. "It's not that we don't care [what pundits say]. We just know that their opinion doesn't matter. It's as simple as that."

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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

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