O’s Remain AL East Champs

SARASOTA _ Pity the poor Baltimore Orioles.

They watched 40-homer man Nelson Cruz head to the Seattle Mariners as a free agent.

Right fielder Nick Markakis went to the Atlanta Braves.

Multi-inning reliever Andrew Miller bolted to the New York Yankees.

And the Blue Jays, er rather Rogers Communications, attempted to acquire for general manager Dan Duquette as president. It was Edward Rogers, deputy chairman of Rogers and sports consultant Roger Rai doing the phoning to owner Peter Angelos. Not Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos. And not president Paul Beeston.

They’re projected to win the least amount of games in the American League East.

Will the Orioles win any games?

“It’s perfect,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter with a gleam in his eye standing in the Orioles dugout before his team took on the Jays Friday night atEd Smith Stadium. “Who knows? They might be right.

“It’s what they call laying in the weeds back in Texas.”

Baltimore added Travis Snider and J.P. Arencibia. OK, so they’ll win a few.

Yet, take a closer look at the Orioles and they aren’t that bad.

In fact, they should be a team that the Blue Jays should be worried about … we mean besides the New York Yankees, who have the best bullpen in the AL East and the Tampa Bay Rays, who have the best starting staff in the division and the Boston Red Sox, who might be the best team.

Look at the new look O’s.

Aside from Snider and maybe Arencibia they have:

Matt Wieters, who was DH-ing against Daniel Norris, and is back after starting only 22 games behind the plate due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

Third baseman Manny Machado is healthy and leading off against the Jays after playing 82 games due to a knee injury in 2014.

And do you think first baseman Chris Davis, who was hitting fifth, will bat .196 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs (173 strikeouts), a year after batting .286 with 53 homers and 138 RBIs (199 whiffs)?

Given a pick if we had to chose between a Cruz-Miller-Markakis combo or a healthy Wieters-Machado-Davis trio, we`d take the second grouping.

And another thing about the O’s they have the best manager in the division in Showalter, who wins manager of the year honors every 10 years … as reliable as Bulova Olympic timing.

He won in 1994 with the New York Yankees (70-43, .619 winning mark), in 2004 with the Texas Rangers (89-73, .549) and last year with the O’s (96-66, .593).

The Orioles don’t have a Cory Kluber or a Clayton Kershaw in the mix, but neither does anyone else in the division.

In Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez the Orioles have six starters for five spots. A solid staff.

“The key to this team is starting pitching,” said Showalter. “We were fourth or fifth in the league last year in starters ERA. You get deep into a game with your starters you are able to put a bullpen together. If you have your starters going short you have no chance. Then, you get relievers asking what’s why my role?

“Well, if the starter only goes three his role might be the fourth inning because we’re contractually obligated to play nine innings each night.”

The O’s were fifth with a 3.61 starter’s ERA, 0.01 behind the Kansas City Royals.

Their pitching staff allowed the third fewest runs per game behind only Seattle and the Oakland A’s and were second in the division in strikeouts/walks ratio behind the Jays.

Showalter said he has decided on his five but it will be some time before he makes it public.

The Orioles have 11 free agents this season. The team with the next most are the Washington Nationals with seven and no other team has more than five. So opening day April 6 at Tropican Field is a big day … and so is June 8-10 as the Orioles have five picks in the first 100 and could have seven next year.

They have the right man in charge in former Jays scout Gary Rajsich as their scouting director.

Showalter said one of the most valuable members of his division winning staff was lefty T.J. McFarland, who appeared in 37 games, going 4-2 with a 2.76 ERA.

“He pitched two or three innings when we were up 12-2 or were down 12-2, need a spot starter? He was your man ‘sure skip,’” Showalter said. “In the AL East every team needs to have a guy like that. He didn’t have a role. His role changed every two weeks.”

McFarland sounds a lot like Danny Cox, who manager Cito Gaston used like a starter out of the bullpen for the 1993 Jays: long outings, followed by three or four days rest.

Pity thhe poor Orioles.

All they have are a healthy Weiters, Machado and Davis, plus six established starters.

And Showalter.