When last we left the Singing Cowboy and his Melody Ranch Hands, they were getting bushwhacked at the Circle A by the notorious Weaver gang. Gene Autry's California Angels showed what they were made of by even reaching the playoffs, but in the process they also showed what the rest of the division was made of. The West was won with an 88-74 record, good for fifth in the American League East.
So anything goes in this, the Venus de Milo division: the big teams all look terrific—except that they have no arms. California, Kansas City and Texas boast some of the best players in baseball, certainly the best third basemen, but they would all be better off with Seattle's pitching. The Angels fielded such a strong lineup last season that they won despite 47 injuries, 81 different lineups and a staff ERA of 4.34, the worst in the club's history and ninth best in the league. But since that lonesome day in Anaheim when the Orioles eliminated California from the playoffs by the embarrassing score of 8-0, Manager Jim Fregosi has lost his fastest gun, Nolan Ryan, to high finance and Houston. The Royals lost their three-year grip on the division, finishing three games back, because their pitching was even worse than the Angels'. The Rangers might have won had they not mysteriously lost 30 of 40 games after the All-Star break. As the new season opens, it appears that California still has the best starting nine and that Texas has the edge in pitching. Therefore, Kansas City will win.
That is not as illogical as it sounds. The Royals know how to win the division, if not the playoffs, and their pitching can't possibly be as bad as it was last year, when all the starters decided it was their season to swoon. And would anyone in his right mind want to pitch to Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, George Brett, Darrell Porter, Hal McRae and Willie Mays Aikens? At third and foremost, new Manager Jim Frey inherits Dirty George Brett, whom, with some justification, he calls the "best all-round offensive player in the game." With 42 doubles, 20 triples and 23 home runs, Brett became only the fifth major-leaguer to produce 20 or more of each in one season. He was second to Fred Lynn in batting, with a .329 average, and also landed his first major endorsement—fittingly enough, a soap commercial.
Leading off will be Wilson, who hit .315 and stole 83 bases, the most in the American League in 67 years. In center will be the estimable Otis, coming off one of his better seasons: .295, 90 RBIs, 30 stolen bases. The Royals traded the grace of Al Cowens to California for the power of First Baseman Aikens, leaving rightfield open for Clint Hurdle. Even though Hurdle, a phenom of two springs ago, was sent down to Omaha for a while last season, K.C. is expecting big things of him.
No catcher had a better year than Porter, with 112 RBIs, 101 runs and 121 walks. The Royals are hoping against hope that Porter can soon solve the personal difficulties that led to his leaving camp. If Porter doesn't return, John Wathan or Jamie Quirk will catch. Added power will be provided by Aikens (21 HRs, 81 RBIs) and DH McRae, healthy again after a shoulder injury held him to a .288 average and 74 RBIs last year. The Royals' one glaring non-pitching weakness is shortstop. Fred Patek has gone to California, and neither U.L. Washington nor former Angel Ranee Mulliniks is first rate. Whoever ends up playing the position will have the game's best second baseman to his left, Gold Glove winner Frank White.
Dennis Leonard won 20 and 21 games in 1977 and '78, but he took a side trip to Gopherville last year and ended up 14-12. Still, he pitched well the second half, as did Larry Gura. Paul Splittorff, however, had a bad second half, and Rich Gale, who was outstanding as a rookie in '78, had two bad halves. The bullpen lost Al Hrabosky, which may be no loss at all. That leaves the relief work to Dan Quisenberry, Renie Martin and lefty Gary Christenson.
It won't be easy for the Angels to climb back in the saddle again. On paper, they have a great outfield now that Cowens has arrived, but Leftfielder Joe Rudi is recovering from an injury to his right Achilles tendon, and Centerfielder Dan Ford is coming off right-knee surgery and may not be ready to start the season. There is also the question of the well-being of Rod Carew. Last year was only the second in the last eight that Carew didn't win a batting title. He had good excuses for hitting, for him, a mere .318—a bad elbow, torn ligaments in his right thumb, tonsillitis and a bruised left heel—but at age 34 those good excuses could turn out to be bad omens.
Certifiably healthy are Don Baylor, the first DH to be MVP, Bobby Grich, Carney Lansford and Brian Downing. Baylor led the majors in runs (120) and RBIs (139), played all 162 games and hit .296. Grich, the second baseman, had his finest season, with 30 homers, 101 RBIs and a .294 average. The nicest thing about Third Baseman Lansford is that he's 23 and getting better; in '79 he hit .287 with 19 homers and 79 RBIs, stole 20 bases and fielded superbly. Downing opened up his stance and raised his average 71 points, to .326, but he doesn't have much of an arm behind the plate. The Angels also bought the 35-year-old Patek, and they have already gotten more than they bargained for. He was listed at 5'4" in Kansas City; the California press guide has him at 5'6".
When Ryan left, he not only took his 100-mph fastball but 250 innings of good work as well. Bruce Kison, picked up as a free agent, hasn't pitched more than 193 innings in any of his nine seasons. Dave Frost was a revelation last year, using his forkball to go 16-10, but beyond them lie outpatients and mediocrity. Frank Tanana's sore shoulder may prevent him from ever being the Frank Tanana of old again, and Chris Knapp has a bad back. Mark Clear is expected to anchor the bullpen, but he tailed off dramatically last season after being selected to the All-Star team.
The Rangers just may win the division in gratitude for Brad Corbett having returned full time to the plastic-pipe business. In his six years as owner, Corbett turned Arlington Stadium into a bus depot, shuttling players in and out, out and in. That's one reason this club has been the Tin Man of baseball: all the parts but no heart. Now that Corbett is gone, the Rangers may be guttier. But they still have some serious deficiencies, as the team's 0-9 start in spring training indicated. The biggest is at shortstop, where Nelson Norman often made the spectacular play and muffed the routine ones while hitting a resounding .222 as a rookie in '79. At second is Bump Wills, a good offensive player who tends to live up to his nickname in the field. It was thought that John Milton (Mickey) Rivers had found paradise in centerfield for Texas when he hit .300 after coming over from the Yankees last July, but now he says he wants to go back to New York. Next to him in right is Al Oliver, one of the game's premier hitters, and in left Bill Sample will platoon with John Grubb. Texas is strong at the corners with Buddy Bell at third and Pat Putnam at first. Bell really chimed last year, winning the Gold Glove, hitting .299 with 18 home runs and 101 runs driven in. Putnam looks like a miniature Boog Powell, but his stats may soon be big enough to be described as Boogian. He had 18 homers and 64 ribbies in his first full season. Catching will be Gold Glove winner Jim Sundberg. The Rangers would like Richie Zisk to be their DH, but only if he hits better than he has (.262) in the last two seasons since he came to Texas for $2.5 million. The good news is that Zisk discovered he was suffering from hypoglycemia, which has been brought under control; the bad news is that he's coming off knee surgery. If Zisk falters, John Ellis, a bail bondsman in the off-season, will—need we say it?—bail Texas out.