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Abreu gets start after promotion

Times Staff Writer

The first player to greet Tony Abreu in the clubhouse during his first day as a Dodger was fellow rookie Andy LaRoche.

Abreu shook LaRoche’s hand, then grabbed his third base job.

LaRoche, only 12 games removed from triple-A himself, seemed genuinely glad to see his longtime minor league teammate, despite the fact that Abreu’s name was in the lineup against the Milwaukee Brewers instead of his.

“It’s about time he’s here,” LaRoche said. “He’ll turn a lot of heads. He can really play. If he can help us win, he deserves the spot over me.”

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With seven hits in 30 at-bats, LaRoche hasn’t exactly had a long look. Manager Grady Little plans to divide the position between them and continue to use Wilson Betemit off the bench.

Abreu brings momentum. He batted .347 at Las Vegas with a .397 on-base percentage and .503 slugging percentage. If he performs well, Abreu eventually could supplant Juan Pierre and his subpar on-base percentage at the top of the batting order.

“Reports from scouts within and outside our organization said he was one of the best players in the [Pacific Coast League], if not the best player,” Little said.

“He’s earned the right to get an opportunity right now.”

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As for LaRoche, Little said, “He’s not going to stagnate,” hinting that he would return to Las Vegas to play every day if Abreu seizes the position.

Abreu was a second baseman until taking a crash course at third during spring training to give the Dodgers another option in case Betemit and LaRoche faltered.

Abreu is considered the heir apparent to Jeff Kent at second base.

“I know the basics at third,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “I know where to position myself, but I’m really still learning.”

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Roster room for Abreu was created by sending left-handed pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo to Las Vegas, where he is scheduled to be the starting pitcher tonight.

The Dodgers don’t consider the move a demotion for Kuo, who was shaky in two relief appearances last week. After he makes two or three starts at triple A, Kuo might return to take Brett Tomko’s place in the rotation.

Kuo pitched well in a starting role late last season and was competing against Tomko for the fifth starting spot during spring training when he injured his shoulder. The Dodgers needed him in long relief and promoted him, but have had second thoughts given his struggles out of the bullpen and Tomko’s recent problems as a starter.

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Little said Tomko’s next start would be skipped because of the Dodgers’ off days Thursday and Monday. His next scheduled start wouldn’t be until the first week of June.

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Jason Schmidt threw with more velocity than at any time this season during a side session and is scheduled to pitch a simulated game Friday, the next step in his return from the disabled list. He would pitch at least two simulated games before beginning a minor league rehabilitation assignment.... A front-office source said that if Schmidt has a setback in his recovery, reliever Chad Billingsley could go to triple A for a short time to become a starter.... The Dodgers have yet to put utility player Wilson Valdez on waivers and must do so or trade him by Friday. Valdez, a pleasant surprise the first six weeks of the season, would have to clear waivers for the Dodgers to keep him in the organization and send him to triple A.

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steve.henson@latimes.com


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