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.