The battle in the American League West will be more of a war of philosophies than of teams. On one side are the challengers, Brad Corbett's Texas Rangers and Gene Autry's California Angels. After each of the last two seasons they have tried to buy a pennant through the reentry draft. On the other side is Kansas City, which has won the last two division championships. The Royals have neither gained nor lost anyone of importance in the two drafts. "We don't have to buy players," says General Manager Joe Burke. "We've got them right here in our organization. It has never been more important to have a strong farm system than it is today."
The Royals' approach succeeded last year when they had the best record in baseball, 102-60. As a result, did Corbett of the Rangers consider changing philosophies? No, he just dug deeper in his pocket. "Our No. 1 need was a genuine clean-up batter who could hit 25 to 30 homers and drive in 100 runs," says Manager Bill Hunter, who guided Texas to 60 wins in its last 93 games after taking over on June 28. "We got that in Richie Zisk."
In 1977 Zisk belted 30 homers and batted in 101 runs in a one-year stopover with the White Sox. Corbett gave him a 10-year contract reportedly worth $2,955,000, and Zisk thinks the money will buy Texas a pennant. "The Rangers lost last year by eight games," he says, "and there's no question that we've made up the difference."
Zisk's optimism stems in part from a second Texas acquisition, his former Pirate teammate Al Oliver, who came to the Rangers in a four-team trade. Oliver, a career .296 hitter, will bat in front of Zisk and wear No. 0 in left field. And there is a lot more Ranger hitting to go with good speed and strong defense. First Baseman Mike Hargrove (.305 in 1977) was moved to the lead-off spot by Hunter and responded with a .445 on-base average. He was even tougher to get out in the first inning, reaching base 58.5% of the time. Batting behind Hargrove will probably be Shortstop Campy Campaneris, who led the league with 40 sacrifices, 19 more than anyone else. Farther down the lineup are Third Baseman Toby Harrah, who had 27 homers and drove in 87 runs, Second Baseman Bump Wills, who hit .287, and Gold Glove Catcher Jim Sundberg, who batted .343 in the second half of the season after he started choking up on the bat.
But to obtain all this punch, the Rangers may have given up too much pitching. Texas traded away Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry, who had 29 wins between them, and Adrian Devine, who was 10-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 54 relief appearances. To compensate, the Rangers acquired two new starters, ex-Met Jon Matlack and Doc Medich, who worked for three teams last season, and a spot starter/long reliever in Ferguson Jenkins. All three were once big winners, but none had more than 12 victories in '77. Together with Doyle Alexander (17-11) and Dock Ellis, they will make Texas deep—if not necessarily all that good—in starters.
Texas took an even bigger gamble in the bullpen, where Hunter has given the right-handed relief job to 22-year-old Len Barker, a 6'4", 235-pound fireballer who was so impressive in 47 innings at the end of last season that the Rangers felt free to deal off Devine.
Autry's big purchase for the Angels this year is former Minnesota Outfielder Lyman Bostock, who finished a distant second to Rod Carew in the 1977 batting race with a .336 average. Bostock cost about $2.3 million (for five years) and will replace Bobby Bonds, California's best hitter last season, who was getting ready to play out his option and was shipped to the White Sox. But where the Angels figure to benefit most from the reentry draft is in the return to good health of two of last year's acquisitions, Leftfielder Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich, who will move from shortstop back to his original position, second base. Rudi played in only 64 games—and had 53 RBIs—before a broken wrist ended his season; Grich played in just 52 before undergoing back surgery, They should give California a lot of wallop.
But will it be enough? Like Texas, California has pitching woes, despite the best one-two combination in baseball, Nolan Ryan (19-16) and Frank Tanana (15-9 in an injury-shortened season). As usual, Ryan led the majors with 341 strikeouts, or 10.26 a game. Manager Dave Garcia has decided not to pitch them back to back this season, because they complete so many games (42 in 1977) that the Angel relievers get stale.
The question is where will Garcia find additional starters. He thinks he has two in Ken Brett, who has a history of arm trouble, and promising 23-year-old Don Aase, acquired from the Red Sox for Second Baseman Jerry Remy. Aase was 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA in half a season with Boston. If Aase and Brett falter, at least there will be good relief from lefthander Dave LaRoche and righthander Paul Hartzell.
Kansas City has not sat idly by during the Texas-California spending sprees, and there seems to be enough talent in Burke's farm system to keep the Royals one step ahead of their expansive rivals. Twenty-year-old Clint Hurdle, the American Association MVP last season with a .328 average, has a good chance of beating out John Mayberry at first base or, if Mayberry's hitting improves (.230 in 1977, but 82 RBIs), of becoming the everyday leftfielder. In center, 22-year-old Willie Wilson, who stole 74 bases in Triple-A, is battling Amos Otis.
The Royals are set—and solid—everywhere else. Right-fielder Al Cowens, runner-up in the MVP voting after hitting .312 with 23 homers and 112 RBIs, won a Gold Glove, as did Second Baseman Frank White. Shortstop Fred Patek led the league with 53 stolen bases. Third Baseman George Brett hit .312, and DH Hal McRae batted .298. The Royals have so much talent that Manager Whitey Herzog, whose players call him the White Rat, said early in spring training, "I can cut the team to 30, but I'm going to have a problem getting to 25."
Some observers say the Royals should use their excess talent to trade for another starter—even though Kansas City led the league in pitching last year. Herzog uses a five-man rotation, but as spring training closed only Dennis Leonard (20-12 with a 3.04 ERA) and Paul Splittorff (16-6 after a 1-4 start) were sure to be among the starters. Jim Colborn, who was 18-14 a year ago, Marty Pattin, Larry Gura, Andy Hassler and a 6'1" rookie, Rich Gale, were competing for the other spots. In the wings is Steve Busby, who missed most of the last two seasons with an ailing shoulder, but in the three years before that won 56 games. A return to form by Busby could turn the West into a Royal rout. Righthander Doug Bird anchors the bullpen again, and K.C. added balance there by trading righthander Mark Littell for lefthander Al (Mad Hungarian) Hrabosky, who after a year of bristling about the Cardinals' rules against facial hair was happily wearing a full beard in spring training. In pitching, as elsewhere, the Royals seem to have too much talent to be caught.
The White Sox surprised everyone by leading the division as late as Aug. 19 and finishing third with a 90-72 record. They were not the Go-Go Sox of Bill Veeck's earlier regime in Chicago, but the Boom-Boom Sox, a slugging team—192 home runs—that finished 10th in pitching, 12th in fielding and dead last in stolen bases and double plays.
Unfortunately, Chicago lost three boomers when Right-fielder Zisk and DH Oscar Gamble became free agents and First Baseman Jim Spencer was dealt to the Yankees. Among them they accounted for 79 homers and 253 RBIs. As replacements, Veeck has acquired Bonds, who could become a free agent after this season, and former Yankee Ron Blomberg. Bonds almost became the first major-leaguer to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season last year when he clouted 37 round-trippers and swiped 41 bases, one fewer than the whole White Sox team in 1977. "If I get to run on my own," he says, "I'll steal 40 bases again, and the size of Comiskey Park doesn't bother me, either. I can hit the ball over the roof." Whether Blomberg can hit the ball past the mound is questionable. He was a .300-plus hitter from 1971 to 1974, but injuries all but inactivated him the past three seasons, and he has never been known to put forth maximum effort when it comes to conditioning.
There still is plenty of boom, however, among holdovers Eric Soderholm at third base, First Baseman Lamar Johnson, Leftfielder Ralph Garr, who hit .300 for the second straight season, and Second Baseman Jorge Orta. But their hitting will not be able to overcome the Sox' pitching and defensive lapses, particularly by the double-play combination of Orta and Shortstop Alan Bannister.
More than anything else, 1977 was the year of Rod Carew in Minnesota. He was named MVP after leading the league in average (.388), runs (128), hits (239) and triples (16). He also drove in 100 runs as the Twins became the league's top hitting team. But the reentry draft keeps eating away at Minnesota. The club's other two batting stars, Bostock and Larry Hisle, who drove in a league-leading 119 runs, became free agents and left the Twin Cities.
Their absence will be felt, because the Twins need every hit they can get. Their pitchers ranked 12th with a 4.36 ERA last season. The only reliable starter is Dave Goltz, who finished at 20-11 and had two of the staffs four shutouts and 19 of its 35 complete games. Minnesota figures to keep slumping, as it did at the end of last season, when it lost 27 of its final 43 games to drop from first place to fourth. A fall to fifth this year is likely.
The Twins will still be ahead of Oakland and Seattle, which will battle for the basement. The A's stayed in the news during the winter with their on-again, off-again move to Denver, which was still rumored to be under consideration with only 10 days remaining before the season opener. No wonder, because the A's drew fewer than 500,000 fans last season, when they finished last, half a game behind the Mariners. Now that they have traded their only drawing card, Pitcher Vida Blue, to the Giants, they may have trouble reaching the 100,000 mark by the All-Star break.
Although only Centerfielder Bill North remains from the starting lineup of the 1974 world champions, the A's are developing young talent that gives hope for the future—the very distant future. As rookies in '77, Outfielder Mitchell Page set a league record of 26 consecutive stolen bases while hitting .307 with 21 homers, and Third Baseman Wayne Gross made the All-Star team. The Blue trade brought three players who should help Oakland right away: Outfielder Gary Thomasson, who ripped 17 home runs and knocked in 71 runs in 1977; Catcher Gary Alexander, a good hitter but shaky on defense; and Reliever Dave Heaverlo, who appeared in 56 games and had a 2.55 ERA. In the long run the prize of the trade may turn out to be 21-year-old right-handed fastballer Alan Wirth, who was 15-5 with Double-A Waterbury (Conn.) last year. However, he will probably spend at least one more season in the minor leagues.
In their first year of existence the Mariners made an error in judgment. Assuming that the dead air in their domed stadium would keep fly balls from traveling far, they put a premium on speed. But the ball carried surprisingly well in Seattle, and the Mariners have had to go back to the drawing board. In the reentry draft, they acquired Outfielder Bruce Bochte, who hit .301 with California and Cleveland last year. He will team with DH Lee Stanton (27 homers, 90 RBIs), First Baseman Dan Meyer (22 homers, 90 RBIs) and Centerfielder Ruppert Jones (24 homers, 76 RBIs) to give the Mariners muscle. But the Bochte signing aside, Seattle plans to build from its own farm system. As co-owner Danny Kaye explains it, "One player like a Thurman Munson isn't going to help us. We need more than one, and we'd rather have our own roses to pick." No doubt Kaye has noted that Kansas City has been winning by picking from its own nursery.