Peter Schmuck: It's time to find out if Orioles' youth is ready to be served - BaltimoreBaseball.com
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Peter Schmuck: It’s time to find out if Orioles’ youth is ready to be served

Photo Credit: Nathan Ray Seeback USA TODAY Sports

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The Orioles outsmarted the experts and oddsmakers with their uplifting performance last year and came surprisingly close to reaching the postseason.

Now – as they get set to open their much-anticipated  2023 season at Boston’s Fenway Park on Thursday —  the burning question is whether they can do that again and satisfy the expectations they created with their unprecedented year-over-year improvement.

The wealth of young talent they brought to spring training and an upbeat, largely injury-free camp has fueled confidence that fans will see Mike Elias’ long-term rebuilding effort reach fruition and carry the O’s to the playoffs, but the same oddsmakers and experts who dismissed them last spring are betting against them again.

The last time I looked, the wise guys in Vegas had set the over-under for Orioles regular-season victories this year at 78, which would leave them well out of contention for a wild-card berth. That’s a more optimistic projection than anyone harbored 12 months ago, but it keeps the club solidly in the “nobody believed in us” category going forward.

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If you want to extrapolate the division title odds laid out by Caesars Sportsbook, you could get 25-to-1 odds (+2500) on the O’s, which projects to them finishing last in an American League East that again will be dominated by the Yankees (+115), Blue Jays (+185) and Rays (+360).  They are listed at 33-1 to win the American League pennant and 75-to-1 to win the World Series.

But, heck, who cares what the so-called experts think. Oriole fans don’t need to be reminded that during the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette glory days, the team was annually dissed by Fangraphs on the way to winning more regular-season games than any other American League team for the five-year period from 2012 thru 2016.

The O’s have the best young talent in the game and they’ll get to show off the cream of it at Fenway Park  over this long weekend.  Elite catcher Adley Rutschman finished second in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year last season and third baseman Gunnar Henderson is considered the odds-on favorite to win that award this year. So, I guess we have to hope the oddsmakers and experts are right about something.

The only sour notes during a harmonious six weeks of spring training were the unexpected demotion of top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez and the knee soreness that will keep reliever Mychal Givens from starting the season on time. Henderson didn’t wow anybody with his .216 Grapefruit League batting average, but no one is worried about a much-heralded young player who hit 37 home runs and produced 161 RBIs in 914 minor league at-bats and had 12 extra-base hits and 18 RBIs in his 34-game big league audition last season.

The decision to demote Rodriguez probably had more to do with his 7.04 ERA in five exhibition starts than any service time issue, but it has to be quite a disappointment for the top pitching prospect in baseball and for fans who had to wait an extra year after his anticipated midseason arrival in the big leagues was sabotaged by a severe lat strain last June.

It was that setback and the disastrous season-ending elbow injury to No. 1 starter John Means in mid-April that seemed to eliminate the Orioles from any playoff consideration, but the O’s rallied around a no-name pitching staff and got a huge emotional boost from Rutschman’s immediate emergence as one of the premier catchers in the game. They also were energized by the base-stealing ability of shortstop Jorge Mateo and centerfielder Cedric Mullins, double-digit homer totals throughout the starting lineup and breakout run-production numbers from outfielder Anthony Santander.

That’s why it’s easy to imagine the club taking a big step forward with the arrival of veteran starters Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin and the return of almost everybody from last year’s surprisingly effective bullpen. But it’s also why it’s easy for preseason prognosticators to look at the lack of experience and marquee-level talent and wonder if enough can go right for the Orioles to match last year’s win total.

So, the question that hangs over this season is a fairly simple one: Will the Orioles be buoyed by all this youthful promise or betrayed by it?

We’re about to find out.

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