They're almost never in first place at the all-star break, they're almost always in first place at the end and they're almost never appreciated as anything more than a good team in a bad division. Until now.

The Kansas City Royals won the American League West for the sixth time in 10 seasons in 1985, but they added a twist: for the first time since the 1974 Oakland A's, they gave their division a World Series championship.

It was probably inevitable for the Royals, who have finished lower than second only once since 1974 and have become a model for organization, planning and patience. So as baseball's 1986 season begins, the easiest prediction is that the Royals will win the West.

They have perhaps the best young pitching staff in the game and maybe the best player (George Brett) and best reliever (Dan Quisenberry). What the Royals don't have is much offense, but in the AL West, teams don't need a lot of offense. For now, here's September's race in April:

*Kansas City: While it is easy to discount a team that had the American League's lowest batting average and 13th-highest scoring offense, it is also easy to appreciate what the Royals represent.

At 22, Bret Saberhagen is the best pitcher in the league and the mainstay of a staff whose starting five went 75-52 last season and has only one key performer older than 30 -- Quisenberry.

What the staff doesn't have in talent it makes up in poise -- the Royals handed out only 463 walks in 1985 (second in the American League) and allowed a league-low 103 home runs.

The offense rests on the shoulders of Brett, who accounted for 28 percent of the Kansas City runs last season and did that despite drawing a record 31 intentional walks.

*Oakland: Okay, Jose Canseco may strike out 100 times and not hit higher than .260. He's in the lineup to hit those monstrous home runs he has become known for, and after getting 41 of them at three different levels last season, he has had a big spring. Scouts say he has a couple of big holes in his swing, but that if the pitcher makes a mistake, Canseco will hit it out.

He becomes a regular on one of baseball's most interesting teams and the one with the best shot at dethroning the Royals. How else can you explain the A's going 39-26 in day games, 38-59 at night, center fielder Dwayne Murphy hitting .290 in day games, .195 at night?

The A's think they may have found a solution: don't play at night. They promptly scheduled 49 day games at home.

Another welcome addition is Joaquin Andujar, who pitched 269 2/3 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals last season and had as many complete games (10) as the entire Oakland staff. He should save some wear on the bullpen, inasmuch as only one Oakland pitcher threw more than 151 innings in 1985 (No. 2 starter Chris Codiroli, 226).

The A's lately picked up Moose Haas, who makes the starting rotation more than adequate. They are certain about Jose Rijo, but hope Rick Langford can fill the No. 5 spot.

Don't discount the A's. They have power and defense (e.g., shortstop Alfredo Griffin and second baseman Tony Phillips).

*Minnesota: Manager Ray Miller proved in Baltimore he knew pitching, and pitching is the one thing the Twins need to get straightened out. His magic worked last season on reliever Ron Davis, who made good on 18 of his last 19 save opportunities after Miller's "think before you throw" sermon.

The Twins have a solid No. 1 starter in Bert Blyleven, but Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are the problem. They thought they were set with Frank Viola, Mike Smithson and John Butcher after the 1984 season, but in one year, their ERA jumped from 3.47 to 4.44. If Miller's emphasis on throwing strikes and changing speeds will make a difference, the Twins should contend.

Otherwise, they're a what-you-see-is-what-you-get team, playing very well on the slick, bouncy artificial turf of the Metrodome and not every well away from it -- in 1985, a .281 home batting average and a .246 road average, a 49-35 home record, a 28-50 road record.

*California: The Angels continue in transition, Rod Carew and Juan Beniquez gone and Reggie Jackson on the trading block. Rookie Wally Joyner, 23, has been the best hitter in spring training, and shortstop Gus Polidor will play if Dick Schofield doesn't hit. People have been saying for several years the Angels are on the decline. Now, they are.

*Seattle: Baseball people have liked the Mariners' young pitching staff for so long and been disappointed so often that this year almost no one expects anything.

That's too bad, because the Mariners lost last season with a good excuse: four of their five starters spent time on the disabled list; 11 pitchers started games, and 21 pitchers were used in all.

So they came away with the highest ERA in the league, and wore out what might have been a decent bullpen. Regardless, if Mark Langston, Matt Young and Mike Moore stay healthy, the Mariners have a chance to contend.

*Texas: Pitchers Ed Correa, 19, Bobby Witt, 21, and Jose Guzman, 22, have spent a total of 53 days in the big leagues, but when the season begins, they'll be the Rangers' hope. "We may be young," Correa said, "but we don't think young. People will be surprised."

Scouts say people will be shocked that the Rangers are finally on their way up. Not only are the three kid pitchers being given jobs, but a power-hitting rookie, Pete Incaviglia, will start in right field and second-year man Oddibe McDowell in center. Before the season is over, Ruben Sierra could be a regular, too.

*Chicago: New General Manager Ken Harrelson has made a lot more noise than deals and as spring training ends is still trying. He'll probably send Tom Seaver to the Yankees or Red Sox and could find another team for Carlton Fisk as well.

Much of the White Sox success depends on Richard Dotson's recovery from shoulder surgery. If he is healthy, he'll join Joe Cowley, Floyd Bannister and rookie Joel Davis, a mediocre-looking rotation.