Royals trying to stay a step ahead in baseball's weakest division

Baseball's least impressive division champion last season was Kansas City, winner of the American League West with just 84 victories. Some years that won't even get you third place. The Royals, who struggled almost all of 1984 before becoming serious pennant contenders in September, finally made it to the top despite a ton of injuries, a young pitching staff, and a cast of thousands at shortstop. Actually it was only six, all of whom somehow got the job done defensively, even if only Onix Concepcion hit for average.

What you have to assume from all this is that complacency will not be a problem with Kansas City this season. Nobody has to tell the Royals that they are members of a division where too many teams seem to have been created equal. Nobody has to tell them, either, that they probably aren't going to win again unless they increase both the team's power and its run production.

What Manager Dick Howser hasn't forgotten is that both the California Angels, who have gone on an uncharac-teristic youth kick, and the Minnesota Twins, who were one of last season's big surprises, came within three victories of matching Kansas City's record last season. And the Oakland A's, who had the worst pitching in the league, finished only seven games back.

There were moments, too, when both the 1983 division champion Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners also played like contenders. In fact, Chicago is probably Howser's greatest concern at this point.

The only team without much chance of doing something positive in this division is Texas, which took one look at its farm system during the off season and immediately signed free agents Cliff Johnson, Burt Hooton, and Dave Rozema. While that's a plus for the Rangers, too many other problems (like finding a full-time shortstop) remain unsolved.

If the Royals do repeat in the AL West, it will probably be because of their balance plus the availability of both third baseman George Brett and outfielder Willie Wilson from the start of the season.

Last year Kansas City had to muddle along early while Wilson waited out a drug-related suspension that wasn't lifted until May 15. Meanwhile Brett, recovering from knee surgery, didn't get back into action until May 19. Kansas City's team chemistry also went temporarily out of whack later in the season when all-star second baseman Frank White was side lined for a month with injuries.

Brett, who is apt to take better care of one of his cars than he is of himself, barely made it past 100 games last year and has missed a total of 239 since 1977. Of course management was worried. They needn't have been, though, because the Brett who came to spring training this season was trim, stronger, and more serious -- more like the man who hit .390 and banged 24 home runs in 1980.

Brett's reestablished power, added to that of first baseman Steve Balboni, who hit 28 home runs last year, should make things a lot easier on Howser's young pitching staff.

While the rest of the American League has been slow to acknowledge how quickly starters Bud Black, Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen, and Charlie Leibrandt have learned to function at the big league level, no such reluctance has been shown by Howser.

``When we didn't win consistantly early last season, everybody blamed our kid pitchers,'' Dick explained. ``But they were looking in the wrong place. It wasn't our pitchers who were failing us, but the people we normally count on to drive in runs. Once we got our RBI guys straightened out, naturally our pitching looked better. But the fact is it had been good enough right along.''

Howser also has one of the American League's best firemen in submarine-ball throwing Dan Quisenberry, who appeared in 72 games and saved 44 of them. Quisenberry, who drops down so low with his right arm that his pitches seem to be coming out of a gopher hole, seldom has a bad outing. And his throwing style puts about as much strain on his arm as picking up talcum powder.

Royal pitchers will also be throwing to one of the league's best defensive catchers this year in Jim Sundberg, who was acquired during the winter from Texas. Howser, who can be tough but who seldom shows the iron hand inside his velvet glove outside the clubhouse, is a charter member of that group of field bosses who tries not to overmanage.

``Provided there is nothing wrong with a man's mechanics, the worst thing you can do is not let a player be himself,'' Dick said. ``I'm not going to tell George Brett how to hit or Dan Quisenberry how to pitch, because that kind of interference is counterproductive. But at the same time I want everybody on my team, whether he's a regular or a reserve, ready whenever I call on him.''

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