Depressingly inevitable as it may sound, the Orioles probably will end the season almost exactly where a soulless statistician would have predicted.

Teams that show radical one-season improvement usually spend the next year falling halfway back to their previous level of achievement. The '88 Orioles lost 107 games; in '89, only 75. Cold-hearted history says they should split the difference and lose about 91 games this year -- with further improvement likely in 1991.

In fact, a 71-91 record now looks like where the O's are headed. A 7-22 collapse has left them at 60-75. Was it just a month ago the Orioles reached .500 and, in a bad division, had dreams of contending? Must baseball's long season be so inexorably truthful about self delusions?

"We did studies of great leap forward teams in the past -- in order to control our expectations," team president Larry Lucchino said yesterday with a rueful laugh.

Right now the Orioles are terribly injured and in free-fall disarray. Perspective is certainly needed when a team is 1-11 and the rip cord has snapped. "This hasn't happened because of lack of passion," Lucchino insisted. "I don't think I'm wearing rose-colored glasses. The team I'm watching hasn't quit."

If Randy Milligan, Bob Milacki, Dave Johnson and, perhaps, Gregg Olson, get healthy for the closing weeks, the O's might stabilize, avoid 90 loses and pull up to fourth place. That's important to a young team with high aspirations but coltish confidence.

Unfortunately, sixth place is just as likely. And that would be damaging. The bad old Birds of '86 and '87 dogged it in September. That set the tone for the debacle of '88. "We know how long the winters can feel if September is bad," said Lucchino.

Long-term, the Orioles actually have gotten fairly encouraging results this season. If '92 in Camden Yards is really what '90 has always been about, then hindsight probably will proclaim this season a success: because Ben McDonald arrived. And Milligan may have too.

A contender needs a core: one true staff ace, two other quality starting pitchers, a bullpen star, a good setup man, a potent No. 3-4-5 heart of the batting order and an efficient leadoff man. The rest you can patch together.

The Orioles began '89 with only one such player -- Cal Ripken, a great shortstop and an adequate No. 5 hitter. Last season Olson, the stellar fireman, was added. This summer Big Ben began to strike. What's so special about 5-4 with a 2.78 ERA? Well, it means that in his first meaningful exposure McDonald has done slightly better than most of the pitchers with whom he is usually compared -- that's to say, the greatest stuff pitchers ever.

Thumb through "The Baseball Encyclopedia" and look at the rookie years of Feller, Koufax, Johnson, Seaver, Gooden, Clemens and company. McDonald's progress looks typical. He's already effective -- with few walks or home run balls -- and he is the clubhouse buzz of the league. McDonald should be very good in '91 and, probably, win 20 games by '92 when he gets command of his forkball.

Milligan is a touchier issue because of his lingering shoulder injury; those can leave mysterious after-effects. If he recovers fully, Milligan looks like a No. 3 hitter for a 90-victory team. With a great eye, plus good power and a patient clutch temperment, he was one of this season's underrated stars -- with a 30-homer, 90-RBI, .400-on-base-percentage pace. That is, until he got excited and ran over an A's catcher to score a meaningless mid-season run.

As a major bonus, the Orioles seem to have found another core player in aggressive pitcher Curt Schilling. But is he a setup man for Olson or a starter to back up McDonald and improving Pete Harnisch (10-10)? Right now Schilling needs another pitch to be a starter. See what happens next spring with Mark Williamson (8-2), Bob Milacki and Jeff Ballard -- all coming off arm injuries -- and use Schilling where he's needed.

The Orioles' major problem is obvious. And so, perhaps, is its solution. This team has no 100-RBI cleanup hitter anywhere in its system. Without such a bell cow, forget a World Series visit. You don't get there without Frank Robinson or Eddie Murray.

As usual, money is a great erasure. Is it time to get out the checkbook?

The Orioles' baseball men haven't asked owner Eli Jacobs to open his wallet since he bought the team. Let's concentrate on the farm system first, they said. And let GM Roland Hemond try to make some of his famous something-for-nothing trades.

That plan has worked nicely. And a decent groundwork has been laid. But only big money -- for at least one free agent hitter in the $10 million-plus category -- will finish the job.

For two years, the Orioles have been a rock-bottom-salary, high-attendance profit factory. Baltimore's new stadium will be a license to print money. Starting now, and for the next two or three winters, the Orioles have little excuse for being outbid for a top run producer.

"We'll operate on all cylinders -- including investigating free agency and trades of young players for {more expensive} veterans," said Lucchino. "But we're not going to be stampeded. The key to long-term success is still talent in the {farm} system."

The first litmus test may be whether the Orioles sign Mickey Tettleton this winter. Forget his mega-K slump. You don't let go of a good-guy switch-hitting catcher who has hit 36 homers over the last two years. There's just nobody comparable available. With a three-year contract, the tightly-wound Fruit Loop Kid might relax and bounce back.

Trading grousy Phil Bradley in July, and dumping his big contract, was a decent deal. Ron Kittle is a useful platoon DH. After all, Mike Devereaux, Steve Finley and Brady Anderson are all clones of Bradley, but younger. If at least one of them doesn't prove to be a fine outfielder and leadoff man, the Orioles will have been unlucky, not unwise.

The final Orioles ingredient is time. Will gifted Craig Worthington remain a mysteriously disoriented disappointment at the plate? Will Bill Ripken stay healthy and become a .280-hitting semi-star? Was '90 just an ugly abberation for Milacki and Ballard, who were 32-20 last year and 5-18 this season? How good are the half-dozen highly touted Oriole minor league pitchers, especially left-hander Arthur Lee Rhodes?

This year the Orioles pulled off a weird trick. They went backward in the standings while going forward in player development. Nevertheless, a late-season implosion on the field and an off season of front office miserliness would be an ominous combination.

Next season will probably be the true test of the direction of the franchise that, just one year ago at this time, was the game's most romantic inspiration.