Poor Whitey Herzog. As manager of the Kansas City Royals he had a job that until recently looked like a sinecure. After all, in 1976, only the Royals' eighth season, they won their division in impressive fashion, and had enough talent down on the farm to foster talk of a dynasty. "We could have dominated for a long time," sighs Herzog, "if they hadn't changed the rules." But the new rules created free agents and, overnight, California and Texas purchased the sort of talent that Kansas City had spent years developing. Now Herzog and his Royals face a dogfight.
Nonetheless, Kansas City should be good enough to come out on top once more, even though it will be without its best pitcher, Right-handed Starter Steve Busby. Busby was operated on on July 19 to repair a torn rotator cuff—perhaps the most severe arm injury a pitcher can get—in his right shoulder, and it now appears unlikely that he will pitch before September, if at all. But the Royals have plenty of depth to compensate for his absence. They will use a five-man rotation of Righthanders Dennis Leonard (17-10, 3.51 ERA, 16 complete games), Doug Bird (12-10, 3.37) and Jim Colborn, who was acquired in a trade from Milwaukee, and Lefthanders Paul Splittorff and Andy Hassler. Fortunately, the bullpen is solid, because Herzog prefers to resort to his relievers rather than wear down his starters. Last season Righthander Mark Littell made 60 appearances and had eight wins, 16 saves and a 2.08 ERA. Lefthander Steve Mingori pitched 55 times and had 10 saves and a 2.32 ERA.
Kansas City is especially tough at home, having tailored its talent to suit its park. Last year K.C. was 49-32 in Royals Stadium, whose distant fences frustrate power hitters. But it is ideal for a team with speed and line-drive hitting, being the only American League park with an artificial infield and outfield. "It's like playing marbles in a bathtub," grumbles one of the Royals' opponents. Not surprisingly, Kansas City finished next to last in the American League in home runs (65), but ranked first in doubles, triples and sacrifice flies, and second in stolen bases.
Third Baseman George Brett, the only poor gloveman in the infield, edged Designated Hitter Hal McRae for the league batting title .333 to .332. Brett, an all-fields hitter, ranked first in the American League in hits (215), triples (14) and total bases (298). Centerfielder Amos Otis, a defensive standout and K.C.'s best all-round player, led the league in doubles with 40 and Shortstop Fred Patek was fifth in stolen bases (51). The Kansas City offense is likely to be even more productive because First Baseman John Mayberry does not figure to hit as poorly as he did in '76. In 1975 Mayberry batted .291 with 34 home runs and 106 RBIs; last year he slumped to .232 with 13 homers, although knocking in 95 runs.
The Angels' attack should also be stronger. Rather, it had better be stronger, for California spent $5.24 million during the off-season to increase its scoring potential. All those bucks went to free agents Joe Rudi, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor. The presence of that trio—plus a full year from slugging, stealing Rightfielder Bobby Bonds, who missed the final two months of last season after undergoing surgery on his right hand—should make the Angels contenders. "California is a whole lot better," says Herzog. "It won 76 games last year. Now the Angels have moved up to the 95-win category."
Grich was considered a premier second baseman when he was with Baltimore. He will play shortstop for California because the Angels are solid at second with Jerry Remy (.263 with 35 steals). Grich should make the adjustment with relative ease although he missed most of spring training because of an injury; short was his position at Rochester when he was Minor League Player of the Year in 1971. Rudi is merely the top leftfielder in baseball. He is a clutch hitter (94 RBIs) and a superb fielder with an accurate arm. Baylor, who has some power, stole 52 bases last season, after being traded from Baltimore to Oakland. He will be in the lineup every day, either at first, as an outfielder or as the DH.
Fortunately for Kansas City, the Angels could not buy solutions to all their problems. They lack experience at catcher and center field and need help at third base. However, even modest years from the new offensive guns may be enough for the Angels to win. Manager Norm Sherry, who guided California to a 76-86 record and a fourth-place finish after taking over the team in July, has baseball's most overpowering one-two pitching punch in Lefthander Frank Tanana and Righthander Nolan Ryan. Tanana was 19-10 last year with 261 strikeouts. Says Oakland Centerfielder Bill North, "He's not fair." Though coming off arm surgery, Ryan had a league-leading 327 strikeouts and finished strongly—after being only 7-13 in July—to bring his record to 17-18. Behind Tanana and Ryan are two right-handed prospects, Paul Hartzell and Gary Ross.
Texas has made itself a solid contender by learning a lesson from Kansas City and styling its team to its park. "The wind blows in at Arlington most of the time," says Toby Harrah, who moves this year from short to third. "Our organization finally realized that our park is best suited for pitching and defense, not power. You have to give our front office credit for seeing what we needed and going out and getting it."
Last year the Rangers' defense, particularly in the infield, was a laughable ninth in the league. So Texas signed free-agent Shortstop Bert Campaneris, a superb gloveman who stole 54 bases last season at Oakland. He will team with Catcher Jim Sundberg and Centerfielder Juan Beniquez (who came to Texas in '76 with a reputation as an abysmal fielder and promptly led major league outfielders with 18 assists) to give the Rangers strength up the middle. Campaneris also could improve the offensive production of Harrah, who now can play 10 pounds heavier because he will have less ground to cover at third. Harrah, who was, at best, an undistinguished shortstop, feels that at 190 pounds he can produce at the plate the way he did in 1975, when he hit .293 with 20 homers and 93 RBIs. Last season he fell off to .260 with 15 homers and 67 runs driven in. "At short, your No. 1 priority is defense," he says. "At third, you have to contribute more offensively." On the right side of the infield, the Rangers should get a strong bat from rookie Bump Wills, the son of Maury and a .324 hitter in Triple A last year, at second, and Mike Hargrove, a consistent .300 hitter, at first.
Texas also solidified its pitching from the free-agent ranks, signing former Yankee Doyle Alexander (13-9 with a 3.36 ERA). He joins Bert Blyleven (13-16, but a 2.87 ERA) and venerable Gaylord Perry (15-14, 3.24 ERA) to give the Rangers a respectable rotation. More important, Texas has shored up a pitiful bullpen, which had a league-low 15 saves, by purchasing Paul Lindblad from Oakland and trading for Darold Knowles of the Cubs. Both are lefthanders. The Rangers also added right-handed relief by dealing power-hitting former MVP Jeff Burroughs to Atlanta for five players, including short man Adrian Devine. Another of the five, Ken Henderson, replaces Burroughs in right—further improving the defense. But even with the late spring trade that brought Outfielder Claudell Washington from Oakland, there probably are not enough guns in the Ranger offense for Texas to shoot down Kansas City or California.
Like the Royals, the Twins did not benefit from the new freedom in baseball. The worst fielding team in the league, Minnesota got nobody new, and lost some pitching. Free agent Bill Campbell, their ace reliever, departed for Boston, while Bill Singer, the Twins' only starter with a winning record (13-10), was taken by Toronto in the expansion draft.
Thus, Minnesota must rely almost solely on its hitting, and the Twins have plenty of that. In 1976 they led the league in average (.274), runs, hits and RBIs. The best batsmen are First Baseman Rod Carew, who hit .331 and just missed winning his fifth straight hitting title; Catcher Butch Wynegar, who batted .260 with 69 RBIs and at 20 became the youngest All-Star ever; and Outfielders Lyman Bostock (.323), Larry Hisle (.272, 14 homers, 96 RBIs) and Dan Ford (.267, 20 homers, 86 RBIs and 18 game-winning hits). However, one vital ingredient is missing—power. Last year Minnesota hit only 81 homers. The Twins were 10th in pitching and 12th in fielding, but still finished third in the standings, just five games out. More of the same ingredients this year will probably be good enough only for fourth place. Still, Minnesota will not fall as far as last year's second-place team, Oakland. The A's closed fast to trail Kansas City by only 2½ games at the end of the season. Then the free agents departed, all six of them, and now Oakland will be battling with Chicago to stay out of sixth.
To be sure, a touch of the quality that enabled the A's to win world championships in '72, '73 and '74 remains. Vida Blue and Mike Torrez are both former 20-game winners, and other starters, Mike Norris and Paul Mitchell, are outstanding prospects. Centerfielder North is an excellent leadoff hitter who has stolen 212 bases in the last four seasons. The A's recently signed a new first baseman. Suitcase Dick Allen, who promptly announced, "I've got the love of Jesus Christ in my heart." After that, it is fill-in-the-blanks, although the team has fine young players at several positions, especially Outfielder Mitchell Page, who hit better than .400 this spring. Understandably, season-ticket sales for 1977 will probably drop below last year's anemic 1,000 and the team had no radio contract until a week before opening day.
Things are no more sanguine in Chicago, where the White Sox are coming off their worst season since 1950. Sox pitchers had a combined ERA of 4.25, worst in the American League. New Manager Bob Lemon can expect improvement if he gets a full season out of Wilbur Wood, who was 4-3 with a 2.24 ERA before being sidelined in May by a line drive off his left knee, and if better luck befalls Ken Brett. Brett was only 10-12 in '76, although he completed 16 of 26 starts. In seven of those complete games, the White Sox scored one or no runs.
The best of Chicago's everyday players is Rightfielder Richie Zisk, who came to the Sox from Pittsburgh in a trade for Relievers Rich Gossage and Terry Forster. As a Pirate, Zisk hit .289 with 21 homers and 89 RBIs. Unfortunately his glove has a tendency to go clank in the night. Ralph Garr, the only .300 hitter among the Sox regulars last season, will be in left field, although he, too, is a defensive liability. Lamar Johnson, who batted .320 in 82 games, and Jim Spencer will alternate between first base and the designated-hitter spot.
Only the presence of a new team, Seattle, will keep Chicago out of the cellar. The Mariners decided not to follow the accepted expansion practice of acquiring experienced players—no matter how mediocre—to go with youngsters picked up in the expansion draft. Instead, they concentrated on building with youth. Seattle has some splendid prospects, particularly in the outfield where three speedsters—Ruppert Jones, Dave Collins and Carlos Lopez—are battling for jobs, but they won't prevent the Mariners from sinking to the bottom of the division. But bear up, Seattleites. An expansion team no longer needs to spend eight years to build a winner, as Kansas City did. Just ask Whitey Herzog.
To the Angels, Rudi's a beauty
Though his team landed the two most celebrated free agents, Jackson and Gullett, Yankee Manager Billy Martin says, "Joe Rudi is fundamentally the best player of his generation." Martin's Angel counterpart, Norm Sherry, whose club plunked down $2,090,000 to sign Rudi to a five-year contract, is less specific but, understandably, more enthusiastic. "God, what an outfielder!" he says of his new man in left. Rudi rarely received such praise in his seven seasons in Oakland, where he was usually overshadowed by Jackson and other illustrious teammates. True, he does not have Jacksonian muscle or, certainly, the Jacksonian mouth, but he lacks nothing else. Unexcelled as a leftfielder, Rudi has a thorough knowledge of the hitters, uncanny anticipation, sure hands and an extraordinarily accurate arm. And though injuries and an abortive trade unsettled his hitting the past two seasons, during which he missed 68 games, Rudi is a solid, slashing batter who is one of the toughest outs in the majors. He has twice hit over .300, twice had more than 20 homers and once led the league in hits. His .300 average was Oakland's best in its World Series wins of '72, '73 and '74. If Rudi remains reasonably healthy this year—he already has pulled a muscle this spring—the Angels could be a very tough out, too.