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Bench space appears to be at a premium

Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Of the five or six places on the Dodgers’ bench, only two appear to be set in stone, assuming everyone is healthy at the end of camp: one for catcher Gary Bennett and the other for the fourth outfielder, either Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp or Juan Pierre.

The competition for the remaining spots started Sunday, when the team played a five-inning intrasquad game at Holman Stadium that launched the evaluation period for Manager Joe Torre and his staff. Options include veterans such as Mark Sweeney and Ramon Martinez, and 20-somethings such as Tony Abreu and Delwyn Young.

“Youth off the bench is always a question mark because you don’t know how they handle, first, not playing, and, second, how they handle playing after not playing,” Torre said.

The certainty Sweeney can provide -- his 163 pinch-hits are second all-time -- is why he didn’t panic even when he found himself unsigned a little more than two weeks ago. When pinch-hitting, Sweeney said, “You understand what experience does.”

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Ethier, 25, recalled how when he was one of three outfielders sharing the two corner outfield positions last season, a bad week could consist of not getting a hit in a couple of games. Failure could not be made up immediately.

“You wonder if they like you,” Ethier said.

Abreu, 23, also spent a significant portion of last season on the bench.

“Psychologically, it’s difficult because you’ve been playing every day for so many years,” Abreu said. “When you’re in the dugout for so long, you feel uncomfortable.”

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Abreu, who had a hit in the intrasquad game but committed an error, is competing for a utility infield position, his strongest competition coming from Martinez, 35, who is back with the Dodgers as a non-roster invitee, and Chin-lung Hu, 24, last season’s minor league player of the year. Martinez had a run-scoring single and Hu was two for three.

The team’s fifth outfielder could be Young, 25, whom Torre called a priority because he is out of options and would need to clear waivers to be sent to the minors. Jason Repko, 27, is another option.

What happens to the one or two remaining spots could be determined by the competition for the starting job at third base. If Andy LaRoche beats out Nomar Garciaparra, Garciaparra would be pushed to the bench, potentially compromising Sweeney’s chances because Garciaparra can play Sweeney’s natural position at first base.

Torre said he was unsure whether LaRoche, 24, would remain with the big league club if Garciaparra is the starter, saying upper management would be consulted when making that decision.

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Observed by Torre for the first time in a real-game situation, Kemp tripled to right-center field against Jason Johnson in the second inning and scored on a sacrifice fly by center fielder Xavier Paul.

“That type of power you saw the first time up, that’s what’s going to make him tough to pitch to, when the hitter has the ability to hit the ball to both right and left,” Torre said.

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Left-hander Mike Myers pitched a scoreless inning and struck out two batters, including left-handed James Loney. That was noteworthy to Torre because left-handers batted .295 against Myers last season.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com


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