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Tight divisional races loom in race for AL pennant

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Competition should be keen given the prospects of tight division races that could provide another nail-biting season's finish when American League baseball action gets under way on March 31.

The Major League Baseball campaign officially opened last weekend in Sydney, Australia, where early World Series favorites the Los Angeles Dodgers swept two games from National League West rivals the Arizona Diamondbacks.

On Sunday, the Dodgers make the shorter trip down the California coast to San Diego to play the Padres in the U.S. opening, and on Monday the American League gets started with seven home games on the schedule.

For many, MLB's Opening Day ushers in Spring and the promise of warmer days ahead - an occasion coming in the nick of time for local fans eager to move on after a bitter winter.

This particular six-month-long MLB campaign could be a doozy considering how many teams look to have a legitimate shot at contending.

The World Series champion Boston Red Sox could have all four of their AL East rivals pushing for a place in the postseason.

The New York Yankees committed over $450 million in the offseason to sign reinforcements including Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka after missing the playoffs for the second time in 19 years.

The small market Tampa Bay Rays resisted the urge to trade 28-year-old ace David Price and stockpile even more young, cheap talent and so return a pitching staff capable of booking another World Series trip following their Fall Classic berth in 2008.

Baltimore, who reached the postseason two years ago, added pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to their rotation and slugger Nelson Cruz to a formidable lineup that includes Chris Davis (53 home runs).

Toronto, tipped as last season's AL East favorites after adding a slew of high-salaried players, slumped to last place yet a bounce-back by those same coveted players would give them a chance to emulate Boston's worst-to-first turnaround of 2013.

WEST SHOOTOUT

Another wild, jam-packed race could unfold in the AL West.

The Oakland A's have used an impressive crop of young pitchers to win the last two division titles, but they have the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels as serious threats.

Texas added power and speed threat Choo Shin-soo to the top of their order and slugger Prince Fielder to the heart of a potent lineup.

Los Angeles, led by 22-year-old Mike Trout, widely considered the most talented player in the game today, needs a return to form by their one-two punch of power hitters Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to pressure the A's.

Now the Seattle Mariners have joined the party, beefing up their attack by splurging on free agent second baseman Robinson Cano (10-year, $240 million deal), and also adding Corey Hart in support of a pitching staff led by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.

The AL Central figures to remain in the control of the Detroit Tigers, and their daunting rotation headed by Justin Verlander and Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, although the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians could challenge.

With young hitters such as Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas poised to break out as run producers, the Royals installed a new top to their lineup in speedy Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante to set the table.

The Indians charged into the 2013 postseason by winning their last 10 games under new manager Terry Francona and despite the loss of starter Jimenez can contend again if their young pitchers such as Danny Salazar continue to advance.

The races could shape up to rival the fantastic finish of 2013 when the Tampa Bay Rays needed to beat the Texas Rangers in a tiebreaker game to claim the second wild card in a dramatic close to a season that nearly produced a three-way tie for those playoff berths that would have required two tiebreaker games.

DISTINCTIVE SEASON

Two new rules twists will mark the season.

MLB seriously broadens use of instant replay under a new challenge system for the managers intended to fix incorrect calls.

Tag plays, disputed catches, home runs and questions of batted balls being fair or foul can be challenged and settled by a TV replay desk set up in New York and manned by an umpire.

A new rule will also be in effect to cut down on home plate collisions. Catchers will not be allowed to block the plate without possession of the ball, and baserunners are prohibited from straying from their path to the plate to jar the catcher.

The new season will also mark the farewells of two familiar faces on the diamond as Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has announced he will retire at the end of his 20th season, and White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko will call it quits after 18 years in the majors.

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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