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Orioles camp report: If young arms solidify spotty rotation, watch out

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- There were times last year when even Jason Hammel couldn't figure out who the Orioles starting pitcher would be that night.

Hammel was away from the team, working to rehabilitate a knee injury that cost him most of the second half of the season. He would get ready to watch the Orioles on television, and he would think about who was starting.

"I couldn't remember what the rotation was," Hammel said, laughing. "I lost track."

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Who didn't? As good as the 2012 Orioles were in their surprising run to the playoffs, they never really had a set rotation. In nearly every series, "TBA" was on the probable starter list for at least one game.

"It was funny, though," Hammel said. "That TBA always ended up doing good."

Good enough. But it's still worth pointing out that the Orioles starters combined for a 4.42 ERA that ranked 21st among the 30 big-league teams.

It was a huge improvement over 2011, when the rotation had a 5.39 ERA that ranked dead last (and by a lot).

The point is, there's still room for improvement. And that's a good thing.

As you may have heard, the Orioles won a ton of one-run and two-run games last year. Their one-run record of 29-9 was the best in major-league history. Their extra-inning record of 16-2 was the best by any major-league team in a decade.

It stands to reason that the Orioles can't count on that happening again, although Nick Markakis asks, "Who's going to say we can't, especially with the closer we have?"

I'm saying they can't, even with Jim Johnson closing. I'm saying that to win even as many games as they won last year (93), the Orioles are going to need to be better than they were last year.

I'm also saying it's not that hard to figure out how that could happen.

It starts with that rotation.

It starts with a bunch of guys who didn't even to come to spring training with guaranteed jobs, but who brought with them high-ceiling arms. The Orioles don't know if this is the year they begin to get the best out of Jake Arrieta or Zach Britton or Chris Tillman or even Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman.

But they don't know that it won't be.

"There's a lot of potential, a lot of good potential," Hammel said.

The Orioles don't need all of their top young pitchers to turn potential into performance. But the easiest way for this team to win as many (or more games) as last year is if one or two of them do.

They'll get the chance.

In the early days of spring training, the Orioles were suggesting that Bundy (recently named by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the game) and Gausman will likely begin the season in the minor leagues. Even so, GM Dan Duquette refused to rule out the idea that one of the organization's two super-kids could win a spot in the opening day rotation.

"It's a possibility," he said.

Manager Buck Showalter says that only Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have guaranteed rotation spots, although he adds that Miguel Gonzalez is close to being in that group. In any case, the Orioles have at least two spots open, with as many as nine candidates available to fill them.

The nice thing for the Orioles is that they have so many good young arms even people within the organization can't decide which one has the best chance of becoming great. Bundy was the big name last summer, but some now favor Gausman, and others will tell you how much they like Britton or Eduardo Rodriguez, who is even less advanced than Bundy or Gausman.

By bringing Hammel and Chen along slowly this spring (which they wanted to do anyway), the Orioles will be able to provide early opportunities to all of the young pitchers.

They would love to see one of the kids stand out, to shout, "I'm ready."

"Of course I think I'm ready," Bundy said.

No, not like that. The Orioles want to see one or two of the kids look so good on the mound that there's no question he's ready.

"You definitely have to rise above the rest," said Britton, who was the talk of the Grapefruit League in 2011 and is finally healthy again after dealing with shoulder issues. "You've got to do something to stand out."

The Orioles went through 12 starting pitchers last season. Hammel, Chen and Gonzalez were revelations, but really, Chen was the only starter who remained in the rotation from start to finish.

Duquette, Showalter and underrated pitching coach Rick Adair pieced it together, relying heavily on "TBA." It worked, to the extent that the starters usually kept games close, and the Orioles won nearly all of those close games.

The idea this year would be that they don't need to win by only one run. That idea works best if the rotation improves, and the idea of the rotation improving works best if a few of the high-ceiling kids suddenly take a step forward.

"I think the biggest question is the establishment of a starting rotation," Duquette agreed. "We're still in the process of developing good starting pitching."

They can't rely on "TBA" to save them.

"I'd rather see guys from this group establish themselves as 30-start pitchers," Duquette said.

Duquette is convinced the talent is there for it to happen. He believes the Orioles have significantly improved defensively since the beginning of last season, which could help the pitchers make it happen.

He knows for sure that the pitchers will be given the opportunity to let it happen.

Will it happen?

The Orioles' chances of winning 93 (or more) games in 2013 likely depend on it.

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