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Orioles manager Buck Showalter during a Grapefruit League game at Ed Smith Stadium.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter during a Grapefruit League game at Ed Smith Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

They're at it again. The naysayers and stat nerds have determined that the Orioles will be unable to defend last year's runaway American League East title and are headed toward the other end of the standings in 2015.

The reasoning is all too familiar. It is based on the same set of perceived weaknesses that led experts and analysts to be so wrong over the past three seasons, and it fails to take into full account the intangible factors behind the organizational renaissance that has made Camden Yards the place to be again.

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Or, to put it another way, the baseball intelligentsia continues to stubbornly underestimate the Buck Effect, and last year's American League Manager of the Year wouldn't have it any other way.

The last thing Buck Showalter wants from you is a compliment. He has spent his whole baseball career proving other people wrong — except, maybe, about his playing ability — and it's obvious he enjoys proving that the guy who was dealt the best hand doesn't always win the pot.

His players do, too.

If you tell Adam Jones that the Orioles have been picked to lose more games than they'll win and finish fourth or fifth this year, you'll get the same answer that you'd get from all the other veterans in the clubhouse: "Good. We like it that way."

If you tell Showalter he lost too many key players in the free-agent market last winter and that his team has been overtaken in the talent department by the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, you might actually see him smile.

The challenge of repeating as AL East champion in 2015 is right in his wheelhouse.

Why would anyone doubt him after he navigated the 2014 season through a series of injuries that should have allowed the so-called experts to spend all winter crowing about their ability to predict the future?

The Orioles lost Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters to an elbow injury in early May, and Showalter somehow sensed that the time finally had come for career minor leaguer Caleb Joseph.

Platinum Glove third baseman Manny Machado arrived late and left early because of a pair of serious knee injuries, and the Orioles still had one of the best defensive infields in the game, ranking second in the AL in fielding percentage.

Chris Davis had all sorts of setbacks over the course of the season, so Showalter moved the chess pieces around until somebody named Steve Pearce emerged as a dependable glove and a surprising offensive force.

Free-agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez didn't live up to expectations, but even faced with the difficult and largely thankless task of trying to get his $50 million pitcher back on track while keeping faith in alternating fifth starters Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman, Showalter fashioned a rotation that tied the Los Angeles Angels' and Detroit Tigers' for the most victories in the AL.

Throw in having to change closers early in the season, and it's a wonder the Orioles finished seventh in the majors and third in the league with a 3.43 combined ERA.

Give executive vice president Dan Duquette some of the credit for giving Showalter a bunch of wild cards to work with, but it is Showalter who seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding the right unheralded player for an unexpected assignment.

He loves to caution against "overlooking an orchid while you're looking for a rose," and he clearly lives by that philosophy. Fans and analysts alike roll their eyes each year as he squeezes just what he needs out of some Rule 5 draft pick or seemingly marginal Triple-A pitcher.

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Of course, this season is shaping up as another opportunity for Showalter to work his special kind of baseball alchemy.

The Orioles rehabilitated Nelson Cruz's career, then lost him to free agency after he led the majors with 40 home runs. They traded promising pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez to the rival Red Sox for top-flight setup reliever Andrew Miller, then didn't re-sign him, either.

The departure of longest-tenured Oriole Nick Markakis would seem to pose a threat to the great clubhouse chemistry that has developed over the past several years. And there still are questions about the durability of Wieters and Machado as the Orioles prepare to open the season Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

So Showalter has spent the spring tinkering with his outfield and evaluating the new players Duquette brought in to help him fill the holes on the depth chart.

He has experimented with almost every possible alignment to figure out how to best use Pearce, former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Travis Snider, 2014 late-season acquisition Alejandro De Aza and speedy David Lough at the two corner outfield positions. He also has taken a hard look at newly acquired Everth Cabrera, who brought some intriguing tools to the infield competition but might start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

And, quite obviously, nothing has changed in the crowded starting rotation, where Showalter still will have to find a way to get the most out of Jimenez without inhibiting the growth of Gausman and Gonzalez.

Those naysayers are right about one thing: There are all sorts of unanswered questions about this Orioles roster, just as there were in each of the three previous seasons that featured an average of 91 victories.

The Orioles didn't spend $200 million on an ace pitcher, did not acquire a premier slugger to replace Cruz and again will have a payroll that ranks fourth in the division.

They certainly don't make it easy on themselves, but they have Buck, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here."

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