It has become familiar enough to qualify as ritual. For three seasons now the American League West has served as Kansas City's freeway to the playoffs. And for more than two years California and Texas have each bought and sold and traded players in an effort to fashion a club strong enough to beat the Royals. After finishing in a tie for second place, five games back, the two were at it again this winter—buying and trading in pursuit of a title. All of which recognizes a central fact about the division. With balance, speed, hitting, pitching, power and depth, Kansas City is not being counted on to falter on its own; to beat the Royals, Texas or California must first catch them.
The Rangers thought last April that, with the addition of Richie Zisk, Bobby Bonds and Al Oliver to their lineup, they had a winner. "There was a lot of talk about how we were going to walk away with the division," says Zisk. But following a horrendous 10-20 July, in which they were in first place by a percentage point on the 1st and 10 games behind on the 31st, the Rangers never got close. Their infield, originally suspected of being a bit leaky, turned out to be a colander. "We made 116 errors in the infield alone," says Manager Pat Corrales. "If you're going to compete for the division title, you can't make that many errors. I dream about it at night."
Third base, as usual, was a carousel. Texas has had 29 third basemen in its seven-year history, and last year six men tried their thumbs at it. Together they committed 30 errors, including 15 in 49 games by Kurt Bevacqua and five in 25 games by John Lowenstein. To their left, Bert Campaneris had 20 errors at short; Campaneris' sub, Jim Mason, had eight in only 42 games. "It was unbelievable," says owner Brad Corbett. To remedy the situation, Corbett has traded Toby Harrah for Cleveland's disenchanted Buddy Bell, a .282 hitter, thereby getting not only a solid batter but also an accomplished third baseman. This spring the Rangers unveiled a rangy, quick-handed rookie shortstop in Nelson Norman, who has been playing to raves. "Nelson is another Mark Belanger," says former Texas Manager Billy Hunter. Now all that is needed to solidify the infield is a first baseman. Texas had one in Mike Hargrove, but Corbett shipped him to San Diego for DH Oscar Gamble. Ranger DHs hit .231 last year, second lowest in the league. Obviously, Texas is hoping that Gamble will produce as he did with the White Sox in 1977, when he hit .297 with 31 home runs and 83 RBIs. First base has gone by default to .196-hitter Mike Jorgensen.
The Rangers' starting rotation in '78 was among the best in baseball—its 3.36 ERA was second only to the Yankees'—but there was precious little in the way of relief. "Twenty-six times we had the lead from the seventh inning on and couldn't hold it," Corrales says. So Corbett made the bullpen a priority. He sent Bobby Bonds and his considerable bat and glove to Cleveland for righthander Jim Kern, whose 13-save performance was better than his 3.08 ERA suggests, and traded three young pitchers and Golden Glove Outfielder Juan Beniquez to the Yankees for 1977 Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle. Lyle and Kern should provide ample late-inning succor for Jon Matlack (15-13), Fergie Jenkins (18-8), the sensational youngster Steve Comer (11-5) and Dock Ellis (9-7). Corrales will have .324-hitter Al Oliver in center; Zisk, who had 22 homers, in right; and the platoon of John Grubb and rookie Bill Sample, a fine hitter—.352 at Tucson—with a shaky glove, in left.
On balance, the Rangers see themselves renewed. "We've got a better club than we had last year," says Zisk.
So does California. The Angels were able to get Rod Carew without hurting themselves unduly; they gave up 6-10 Pitcher Paul Hartzell, .223-hitter Ken Landreaux and a couple of minor league players for the seven-time batting champion. The Angels are counting on Carew's bat (his career average is .334) and running (he had 27 stolen bases in '78) to ignite them. "Hitting's contagious," Manager Jim Fregosi says. As the third man in the lineup, Carew will bat directly behind last year's rookie phenom, Third Baseman Carney Lansford (.294), and in front of DH Don Baylor (34 homers, 99 RBIs) and Leftfielder Joe Rudi. The Angels also managed to fill the void in right created by the death of Lyman Bostock by obtaining the Twins' Dan Ford, a better fielder than Bostock and a .274 hitter a year ago, in exchange for surplus players.
Not that the Angels, having signed Carew, are suddenly without shortcomings. Frank Tanana, who was 18-12, became so arm-weary by the end of last season that he couldn't bust a fastball. Nolan Ryan's ailments—a pulled left hamstring and a rib separation—were reflected in his 10-13 record. Ryan can still throw smoke—he led the league in strikeouts again with 260—but he is 32 and a lot of baseball men are wondering how much longer he can endure the rigors of throwing at 100 mph. Nevertheless, Ryan and Tanana are California's aces. Beyond them are simply more questions. Don Aase, highly regarded not long ago, was a disappointment with a 4.02 ERA and 11-8 record. Chris Knapp, another young man with promise, walked out on the Angels during a contract dispute. Knapp was 10-6 when he skipped on July 8. He returned on July 31, having missed five starts, and was only 4-2 thereafter. "I left the team because I thought it was what I had to do," says the inscrutable Knapp, "and I came back because I wanted to."
The Angels' bulwark against all of this uncertainty is Dave LaRoche, a lefthanded reliever whose 25 saves in 59 appearances put him second in the league to the Yankees' Rich Gossage. LaRoche certainly will not find himself idle this year, but he should get a moment or two of rest now that former Giant Jim Barr, a solid spot starter and reliever, and rookie Mark Clear, who had 13 saves and a 2.42 ERA with El Paso, have joined the staff.
While California's starting rotation is perhaps unstable, shortstop is definitely in disarray. Rance Mulliniks was supposed to take over the position a year ago, but he hit only .185 in his first 50 games and was dispatched to Salt Lake City. He hit .307 in 34 games there, and the Angels are giving him another look. It may have to be a long one, no matter what Mulliniks does, because there are no other worthy challengers for the job.
If the Rangers or Angels ever had a chance to beat the Royals, it was last year, because Kansas City had unusually crippling problems in '78. The Royals won in spite of them as Manager Whitey Herzog repeatedly drew upon his deep, flexible bench to spell the injured regulars. And it is this well of talent that again should give the Royals the edge over their two persistent and free-spending challengers. The club's three leading hitters in 1977, Al Cowens, George Brett and Hal McRae, scored 75 fewer runs and had 95 fewer RBIs in 1978. Cowens, whose average dropped 38 points to .274 while his runs batted in fell to 63 from 112, was out a month with a sprained knee ligament. Brett, subpar at .294, missed a month with a severe shoulder bruise and a sore thumb. McRae, who had averaged .311 in four seasons at K.C., was hampered throughout the season by a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and finished at .273. Fred Patek also had a sore shoulder and made 32 errors at shortstop. Second Baseman Frank White was out three weeks with a strained shoulder. Filling in with rookies and journeymen, notably Pete LaCock, who platooned at first base and batted .295, the Royals still hit .268, the third-highest team average in the league, and continued to run wild. Kansas City was the only American League club to steal more than 200 bases.
The injured are all expected back at or near full strength this season. Cowens hit .300 following his return to the lineup, while McRae and Brett underwent surgery this winter. Both missed most of spring training, but Herzog anticipates they will be ready on Opening Day.
The Royals' pitching also helped them overcome their injuries. "That's been the strength of my team the last two years," Herzog says. K.C. had the third-lowest ERA in the league and could be even tougher to score on in '79. Dennis Leonard, pitching as if he were intent on returning to Triple A, got off to a 3-8 start, but he was 18-9 thereafter. Paul Splittorff (19-13) was steady, as usual, and 31-year-old Larry Gura won 16 of 20 decisions and seems to be improving with age. Rich Gale began his rookie season with a 13-3 rush before dipping off to 14-8. He figures to be as strong as he was at the start of last season, now that surgery has corrected a minor muscle imbalance in his right arm. Equally encouraging this spring has been the apparent return to form of Steve Busby, a 22-game winner for the Royals in 1974, who underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff in 1976 and has not pitched well since. "The arm feels super," Busby says. "Best it's felt in four years."
Only the bullpen seems a weak spot for Kansas City. Doug Bird, effective in 1977, collapsed last season, finishing with a 5.29 ERA and one save. He must recover if Al Hrabosky, who had 20 saves in '78, is to get many days off.
Since the advent of free-agentry, Minnesota and Oakland have lost talent whose combined worth probably would be enough to buy either—or, perhaps, both—of the franchises. But while the A's will be hapless, at best, the Twins have managed to stay moderately respectable. Though their lineup is depleted of the topflight hitters that were once a Minnesota trademark, the Twins can still bring rivals to grief because of a pitching staff that may turn out to be envied in Anaheim. In 15-game winner Dave Goltz they have one of baseball's best pitchers; Geoff Zahn, a victor 14 times, is almost as tough. "This is as good a pitching staff as I have had in five years," says Manager Gene Mauch. Minnesota traded for former Met Jerry Koosman, 35, hoping there is still life in a left arm that won only three times in '78, and last season the Twins came up with a good rookie in righthander Roger Erickson (14-13). The revived Mike Marshall, who came out of semiretirement last May 15 to rack up 21 saves, will back the starting talent with his inexhaustible bullpen work.
But because of their weak hitting the Twins will not win all that often. The best of the holdovers is Shortstop Roy Smalley, who had only 160 hits, 80 runs, 31 doubles, 19 homers and 77 RBIs. Ron Jackson, a .297 hitter obtained from California, should help a bit, but not enough.
The White Sox finished fifth in the division, 20½ games behind the Royals, and there is no reason to believe they will improve. Starting pitchers Steve Stone and Wilbur Wood became free agents, making Ken Kravec and Francisco Barrios the aces. They won only 20 games between them last year. The Sox finished 10th in the league defensively and were 10th in stolen bases, too. Among the hitters, only Chet Lemon, the good young centerfielder, is coming off a notable performance. He hit .300. No wonder Player-Manager Don Kessinger has already conceded the division's top three places to Kansas City, Texas and California.
Oakland continues to flounder, but the A's had their moments last year. They started out hot, actually holding the lead as late as July 5, before spending the last two months in a 14-42 slump. Oakland's pitching isn't bad—John Johnson, Matt Keough and Rick Langford are all relatively young, and each had an earned run average of less than 3.43—but the weaknesses at bat seem insurmountable. The A's finished last in the league in hitting, total bases, hits, RBIs and runs. What offense there was came almost entirely from Mitchell Page, who hit .285 with 17 homers and 70 runs batted in, Dave Revering (.271, 16, 46) and Mario Guerrero (.275). True, attendance climbed, but only by 31,400, to 526,999, and the franchise is still awash. And for sale. Considering the players on hand, the $11 million price is no bargain.
Seattle, which finished 35 games back, had the worst record in the league, and the Mariners' attendance dipped almost 500,000 from the giddy expansion-year heights of 1977. But Manager Darrell Johnson says he detects some stirring, particularly by young pitchers Floyd Bannister, Odell Jones and Byron McLaughlin. "Our biggest potential improvement is in our pitching staff," Johnson says. "With these three guys, at least we have some people who can pop the dang ball. There's no way we can be as bad as we were last year." And no way they can be much better, either, even if Outfielder Leon Roberts' surprising performance of '78—he hit .301 with 22 home runs and 92 RBIs—doesn't turn out to have been a fluke.