Even with late additions, key to 2016 Orioles comes from within

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If the Orioles are finally able to reach agreements with Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler, they will have entered new territory.

Not only will the signings likely make the Orioles the biggest free-agent spender of the offseason — let that notion marinate for a few moments — but you could finally say that the 2016 club looks better than last year’s 81-81 outfit on paper. That is both an encouraging sign as well as a reminder of just how expensive the current Orioles have become without even mentioning the countdown to Manny Machado’s free agency after the 2018 season.

However, it’s important to remember that Gallardo isn’t an ace and Fowler isn’t an MVP-caliber player. Their additions alone won’t propel a .500 club into the postseason as they are more complementary pieces than dynamic difference-makers, regardless of their price tags.

If we’re being realistic about Gallardo’s declining strikeout rate and diminished velocity over the last few seasons, his biggest value will likely come through an ability to make 30 or more starts like he’s done in seven straight seasons. Even if his ERA doesn’t sparkle, the Orioles need Gallardo to take the ball every five days and alleviate some pressure from the rest of the rotation and a talented bullpen that figures to be busy once again in 2016.

The Orioles need Fowler to set the table at the top of the order with his .363 career on-base percentage and to play good defense at a corner outfield spot, which will be a change after spending his entire career in center. In a lineup filled with plenty of power, the switch hitter can simply do what he does best.

Even if the free-agent newcomers live up to expectations, the Orioles need much more from several incumbents than they received a year ago if they’re to return to the postseason for the third time in five years.

No matter whom the Orioles were realistically going to add to their rotation this offseason, bounce-back seasons from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez were going to be a necessity. Can Tillman put his 4.99 ERA from a year ago behind him and pitch more like the right-hander who had a 3.42 mark from 2012-2014? Was Gonzalez’s 4.91 ERA in 2015 more about poor health or did the perceived good fortune of outperforming his peripherals over the previous three seasons — a 3.45 ERA compared to a 4.59 fielding independent pitching mark — finally catch up with him?

Manager Buck Showalter said several times this offseason that Kevin Gausman is ready to “pop” as a full-time member of the starting rotation, but the 25-year-old will need to back up the confidence he expressed in his curveball late last season. No one doubts the 2012 first-round pick’s ability, but the Orioles would like to see him at least pitching like a top-half-of-the-rotation starter to improve their chances.

Shoulder and back injuries have zapped J.J. Hardy’s ability to be the hitter he was from 2011-2013, but can he at least rebound to produce at a level closer to what he did in 2014 when he still managed a .682 on-base plus slugging percentage? His defense would need to be at an elite level to offset a repeat of his .564 OPS from a year ago if he wants to remain a player of any value.

Will being another year removed from Tommy John surgery allow Matt Wieters to play at a level coming close to justifying his $15.8 million salary while the capable Caleb Joseph is likely relegated to backup duties? Wieters’ handling of the staff will be even more important than what he’ll bring with the bat after Orioles pitchers had a superior ERA with Joseph behind the plate (3.65 to 4.38) in 2015.

And then there’s the defense, arguably the biggest factor explaining the Orioles’ ability to run away with the AL East title by 12 games two years ago. In 2015, the calling card of Baltimore’s success in recent years was underwhelming due to injuries and frequent turnover at several positions. Fowler and Korean newcomer Hyun Soo Kim will try to stabilize the corner outfield defense, but improved health for Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, and Adam Jones should keep the Orioles defense strong up the middle.

Even if you don’t love the prospects of forfeiting two draft picks, the Gallardo and Fowler signings would address a rotation that lost the reliable Wei-Yin Chen and improve a corner outfield situation that was nothing short of horrendous a year ago. They are the best of what remains on the free-agent market in late February.

But their additions will mean much more if several incumbents are able to put last year behind them.