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.