Only a year ago it would have been possible to make a case for the Kansas City Royals as one of the best-balanced teams in major league baseball. They were coming off a World Series, George Brett had just batted .390, and Willie Wilson had led the majors in base hits with 230.
The 1981 Royals weren't able to repeat their success of the previous year, however. And now, though still basically strong, they no longer appear in a class by themselves in the American League West.
There's no way, for instance, that the 1982 Royals can match the Oakland A's pitching staff. In fact, KC is probably going to have trouble holding off such other division rivals as California, Texas, and Chicago.
What this situation calls for is a manager with the temperament of Dick Howser, who replaced Jim Frey last August and brought the Royals home first in the AL West, one game ahead of Oakland, in the second half of baseball's split season. For the whole season, however, KC finished an unimpressive 50-53.
The reason Howser seems so right for the Royals is that he has a personality that soothes rather than burns. In addition to understanding how to assemble a pitching staff and run a ball game, Dick knows when to ease up, when to discipline, and when to let certain players have their heads.
The public is seldom aware of this because Howser works in such quiet ways, but it is one of his strong points as a manager and is the kind of thing that builds togetherness.
Since Howser prefers a set lineup, opening day should find the Royals with Willie Aikens on first base, Frank White at second, Brett at third, and U. L. Washington at shortstop.
Even though there was talk this winter that Brett might be shifted to the outfield, apparently that's all it ever was--talk. But if Washington doesn't get away well at the plate there's a chance that rookie infielder Onix Concepcion--whose glove is already considered big league--will get a chance to show what he can do.
John Wathan and Jamie Quirk will share the catching, with Hal McRae still a perfect fit as the team's designated hitter.
McRae is one of those rare craftsmen who could probably roll out of bed on Christmas morning, grab a bat, and start hitting line drives between the outfielders. Lee May will also be available for DH-ing and pinch-hitting. Howser will go with Wilson in left, Amos Otis in center, and Jerry Martin, obtained from the San Francisco Giants, in right. However, Martin must produce quickly or possibly lose his job to either Tom Poquette, Cesar Geronimo, Darryl Motley, or Pat Sheridan.
Putting Kansas City into the same championship bracket as Oakland would be a lot easier if Howser had more established pitching to go with his top starters of Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura. Mike Jones, who had a great second half with the Royals last year after being called up from Wichita, is expected to miss all of this season because of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
Rookie left-hander Atlee Hammaker, who was 11-5 last year with Omaha and who throws strikes, is probably is going to get a chance to start, along with Renie Martin, whose 2.77 earned-run average in 1981 was better than his 4-5 record. Veteran Paul Splittorff is also scheduled to go back into the starting rotation after spending most of last year as a relief pitcher. But the days when Splittorff could go 15-9 or thereabouts are probably over.
First out of the Royal bullpen in the late innings, of course, will be right-hander Dan Quisenberry, who saved 18 games last year and whose 1.74 ERA was the best on the club. Joining Quisenberry will be veteran left-hander Grant Jackson and rookie left-hander Jeff Schattinger, who had eight wins and 23 saves in 1981 with Omaha.
If Kansas City trades before the start of the season, it would probably be for a veteran pitcher capable of moving into what should eventually become a five-man rotation.
Basically the key to Kansas City's season is pitching; the running game Howser expects to stress with players like Wilson, Washington, and Otis, and how much clutch hitting Brett can generate after slipping to .314 and six home runs.
Back in 1967 Carl Yastrzemski carried the Boston Red Sox to an unexpected pennant with his bat, and Brett, still in his 20s, may be capable of that same kind of magic. George recently startled Kansas City's front office by asking for a perpetuating lifetime contract with the Royals.