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Dodgers Can’t Be Second Guessing

It was to be the perfect spring story, the perfect Dodger story.

A kid in dusty pants and baggy shirt wins a job, steals a headline, captures a town that can’t wait to welcome him home.

Even his name sounds hardball.

Joe Thurston.

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He batted .334 last year in the minors. He loves it so much his nickname is “Joey Ballgame.”

A winter trade made room, lots of spring work provided opportunity, all that remains is for second baseman Joe Thurston to start the season.

In Las Vegas.

At the risk of spilling coffee on this script, that’s where he belongs.

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The hype has not hit. The phenom has struggled phenomenally. His spring has been winter. The five-star prospect needs more triple A.

But will he be sent there?

The whispers around Dodgertown wonder.

No way they’ll send him down; they’ve already pumped him up too much!

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They have to send him down; they can’t afford a hole in their lineup!

But how do they explain having no hot replacement for Mark Grudzielanek?

Fans will cheer for anyone who is not Mark Grudzielanek!

Much louder is the question facing a team trying to balance a new philosophy with an old mandate.

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Is the Dodgers’ need to promote the future larger than their need to win today?

It has been several years since they’ve had this problem because, well, it has been several years since they’ve had a future.

But now it’s real, and batting .204. Talk about being caught between a casino and a hard place....

If Thurston is sent to Las Vegas, the Dodgers will look a little silly having sung his praises after trading Grudzielanek and Eric Karros partially to clear space on the right side of the infield.

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But if Thurston stays, then the confidence of this 23-year-old kid could be permanently damaged.

If Thurston is sent down, then the Dodgers could show up on opening day with an odd second-base platoon of Alex Cora, a natural shortstop, and 36-year-old Terry Shumpert.

But if Thurston stays, then Shumpert would be lost to another team, because he will not agree to be sent to the minors. And that could be a mistake because, despite his age, he is the sort of solid-hitting veteran that would fit in well here.

The dilemma is real, but the answer should be clear.

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With a rebuilt pitching staff and aging sluggers and the Angels flirting with their season-ticket holders, the Dodgers need to win now.

So, for now, there is no room in this mission for Joe Thurston. Right, Dan Evans?

“I think when you base a decision solely on spring training statistics, that is being short-sighted,” Evans said. “We really like Joe Thurston. We are not down on Joe Thurston.”

Um, OK, well, then, what about you, Manager Jim Tracy?

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“To say he shouldn’t be here is not giving credence to his Las Vegas statistics, and that’s not right,” Tracy said. “He’s done what he has to do at the minor league level.”

Granted, he had 196 hits last year in Las Vegas, including 12 homers and 55 runs batted in. And demoting a guy because of a poor spring can be as unfair as promoting a guy because of a great spring.

But when a player is trying to make the full-time jump from triple A to the major leagues -- the biggest leap in baseball -- the rules are different.

Spring training is his final tryout. Spring training is his most important stage. He knows it. He must react to it.

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If a player can’t at least modestly succeed in front of an overweight pitcher and vacationing umpire and a couple of thousand dozing fans in Kissimmee, how is he going to fare in April at Dodger Stadium?

Right, Joe Thurston?

“I do think I’m pressing,” he said earlier this week after failing to lay down a bunt against the St. Louis Cardinals. “In certain situations, I’m trying to do too much. This comes with being a young player.”

Asked about being sent down, Thurston didn’t sound like a young player.

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“Wherever I go, that’s where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “The Dodgers know I’ll work hard wherever I’m at.”

Joey Ballgame, indeed. With that sort of attitude, Thurston could one day become a good major leaguer, maybe even a great one.

But why does that day have to be now?

Asked about Thurston, one of the Dodgers reminded me of an event 15 springs ago in Yuma, Ariz.

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I was covering the San Diego Padres on the final day of spring training when they sent down a heralded young second baseman with great acrobatic ability. The kid was so stunned and upset, he curled up in the trainer’s room and wept.

But he returned to the minor leagues and played hard and soon thereafter, one of the Padre infielders was injured.

They called the kid up, and he hasn’t gone back down since.

His name is Roberto Alomar.

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By sending down Joe Thurston, the Dodgers won’t be hacking at his career, they’ll be helping it.

Respecting their kids, their fans, and the scoreboard. If that isn’t the perfect Dodger story, what is?

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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