Since losing three straight playoff games and blowing the American League pennant last October, the California Angels failed to re-sign Don Baylor, acquired clubhouse disaster Ellis Valentine, cut the throat of Manager Gene Mauch and saw all their aged starting pitchers get a year older.

Sounds, on the surface, like a prescription for dethronement. But it probably isn't. In 1982, Mauch once again wielded his double-edged managerial sword; nobody has ever been able to bring a last-place team home fourth, or turn a potential pennant winner into a bridesmaid, like the brilliant Mauch.

On paper, the Angels were the second-best team in baseball last year, outscoring rivals by 144 runs--the stuff of which 100-win seasons are made. However, they somehow only won 93 and let Kansas City and Chicago stay in the AL West race until the final days. As usual, the only man who outmanaged Mauch was Mauch; unfortunately, he did it consistently.

Presumably, new Manager John McNamara won't bench Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew and Fred Lynn against left-handers in the Kingdome. Nor will he sacrifice bunt 114 times with a team that hit 186 homers. Nor will he bat slugger Brian Downing leadoff and Carew, who's allergic to RBI, third. Nor will he lose confidence in his make-do relievers after the first game-losing walk or gopher ball.

Actually, a team with Bob Boone, Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing, Geoff Zahn, Tommy John and Ken Forsch doesn't need a manager, just a traveling secretary. Get these guys to the park on time, then leave 'em alone.

Both Chicago and K.C. have legitimate pennant hopes, particularly the White Sox, the only team in baseball that complains about having too much pitching.

The White Sox have added free agent strikeout king Floyd Bannister and AAA phenom Ron Kittle (50 homers at Edmonton) to a club that already had a prime power offense, good speed and deep pitching. Brainy Manager Tony LaRussa has even added by subtraction, ditching Ron LeFlore.

Throw in a smart catcher (Carlton Fisk), a great hitting coach (Charlie Lau), a bonus 12-game winner from St. Louis by way of compensation (Steve Mura) and you wonder what's missing.

Actually, only two things: a couple of great pitchers and a defense that's even marginally competent.

Chicago's defense is so bad, with its 154 errors, 44 of them at shortstop, that the White Sox call it a good inning when all nine players find their way back to the dugout. Some outfielders miss the cutoff men; the White Sox miss the infield.

The classy Royals keep rolling along, slaughtering foes in their watery pinball palace on the prairie (.691 at home), while getting crunched in every grass park on the road (.420). Under Dick Howser, the hard-hitting Royals (.285 team average) like each other and firmly believe they've a contender; however, when they look at their starting rotation, they know they're no longer a champ.

Larry Gura and Dennis Leonard may win 35 games among them, but can the other three starters combine for 35 more? Each year, Vida Blue (13-12) loses inches off his fast ball and that, plus guts, are all he has. Nice-guy Paul Splittorff (10-10) scares nobody, except Howser.

To win, the likeable Royals would need a world of circumstance. They could fade from their 90-win level more easily than they could rise.

The nether reaches of the AL West are mildly interesting; this division, split in '82 between haves and have nots, could bunch up nicely.

Oakland's new manager, Steve Boros, has a degree in literature, a passion for computers and a reputation as a gentleman; for the sake of civilization, let's hope he does better than Billy Martin. The A's got sick of Billy the Kid's act and quit on him; under Boros, Oakland, even with its poor pitching, could improve 10 wins on its miserable total of 68 in '82.

You better start learning the names of the young Minnesota Twins because they're going to light up some pitchers in the Homerdome. Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky and Gary Ward combined for 96 homers last season. The Twins' pitching is, of course, the sport's worst, but, on any given night, Minnesota can win, 9-8.

The Seattle Mariners are a pesky bad team with two tough relievers, several competent but uninspired starters and a manager, Rene Lachemann, who leads a hustling, smart club that brings dignity to losing.

The Texas Rangers, who lost 98 last year, are so lousy on the field and so incredibly mismanaged from the front office that it's a felony that a swell free-spirited character like Doug Rader has to get caught in the middle as their manager. Come on, guys, win 70 for the Red Rooster.