The Orioles are coming off a 93-win season in which they improved their record from 2011 by 24 games, finished second in the mighty American League East and appeared in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
But heading into 2013, the Orioles, who have kept their roster mostly intact, can count Vegas oddsmakers, national baseball analysts and sabermetricians among their many doubters.
Historians are likely betting against them, too.
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Of the 14 previous teams to improve by 22 wins or more in the wild-card era, all regressed the following season, according to Sports Illustrated, and only one of those teams made the playoffs. Each of those teams had a different set of circumstances — whether it was injuries, failed roster moves or simply a regression to past production — but none were able to improve on their remarkable turnarounds.
So when the Orioles' season opens in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday, they will try to buck history again.
"It's tough for me to think that something like that would happen to a team like this with guys that have only gotten better," right-hander Jake Arrieta said. "I feel like top to bottom we are a better team. And to think we will lose more games than we did last year is kind of foolish, I think."
Of course, the 14 previous teams entered the next season thinking similar things, only to see their winning percentage dip. Nine of those teams lost at least 13 more games the following season. Collectively, they averaged 13 fewer wins.
Jim Riggleman managed one of those teams. In 1997, his Chicago Cubs quickly fell out of contention, so the team started to look to the future. The front office, which included former Orioles personnel guru Andy MacPhail, added outfielder Lance Johnson and pitcher Dave Clark midseason.
The following year, the Cubs won 90 games, a 22-win improvement from 1997.
Getting 66 home runs from Sammy Sosa helped.
After their 1998 season ended with a loss in the National League Division Series, the Cubs decided to keep their roster mostly intact. But the Cubs won just 67 games in 1999, and Riggleman was replaced with Don Baylor after the season.
"Anything that could go wrong health-wise or whatever did, and it told us that this is just not going to work," said Riggleman, now the manager of the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. "We're having another bad year and the club tried to build for the future."
Asked to guess why the 13 other teams also took a step back, Riggleman struggled to come up with an answer.
"If guys pitch well for you and play well, you have confidence in them, maybe you're going to stick with them and put them back out there," he said after a long pause. "Maybe those teams did not perform the way they did the previous year. Maybe the wear and tear of the previous year caught up with them. But that's quite a drop-off as [that statistic] said."
Not every drop in the standings for the other teams was a complete collapse.
"We want to be in the playoffs, and we want to play in the World Series," Orioles reliever Pedro Strop said. "We don't care if we win 90 [games] or 85. We want to win the division. If 85 games is enough to win the division, then that means we've stepped up."
The Orioles feel their roster continuity will be a benefit. Younger players such as Matt Wieters and Manny Machado likely haven't reached their peaks. And the players feel the experience from last season, one in which they went 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games, will help.
But Orioles manager Buck Showalter — who in 1999 led a 35-game turnaround with the Arizona Diamondbacks and followed it up with 85 wins a season later — thinks replicating last season's success will be a challenge for the Orioles only because making the playoffs is already so difficult.
"I think people don't realize how hard [making the playoffs] is to do," Showalter said. "It's a challenge. It is always tough to duplicate. And we know that."