Tigers' Avila behind the plate

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Alex Avila rejoined Tigers workouts on a limited basis Monday after two days of dealing with back spasms, but manager Brad Ausmus said they'll hold him back from the start of game action to try to avoid aggravating the injury.

Avila will not start Tuesday's Spring Training exhibition against Florida Southern. Ausmus hasn't ruled him out of Wednesday's Grapefruit League opener against the Braves, he said, "but right now, I'm leaning against it."

More likely, Ausmus said, he'll aim to get Avila behind the plate for Thursday's home game against the Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium.

"We have plenty of time to get him at-bats and innings behind the plate," Ausmus said.

Avila will be the one Tigers regular not in the starting lineup against Florida Southern. James McCann, the Tigers' top pick from the 2011 Draft, will start at catcher for that game. Unlike most of the regulars, McCann will get more than one at-bat.

Avila took batting practice and did infield work on Monday, but he did not do any catching. That meant Justin Verlander was throwing to backup Bryan Holaday for Monday's live batting practice session.

Verlander's expectations high after first live BP

Verlander talks about his live BP session

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander threw pitch No. 8 of his first session against live hitters this spring on Monday and asked catcher Bryan Holaday and pitching coach Jeff Jones whether it was a ball or a strike. He fired his 12th pitch and cursed himself, unhappy with the way he threw it.

In other words, Verlander was back.

He wasn't worried about the core muscle injury that required offseason surgery, not even when he slipped on the mound trying to throw a curveball. He was worried about the quality of the pitches. He wasn't happy with some of them, but he's never happy with them the first time he faces hitters in the spring.

"It went pretty well," Verlander said of his 48-pitch session. "Just a lot of rust to knock off, per norm your first time out against hitters. It was pretty sporadic and a little all over the place. Offspeed stuff wasn't great, but that's normal."

In general, nothing was great according to him. And for him, that's normal. His frustration at this point has become an expectation, and no delay in his throwing program this winter while recovering from surgery was going to get him to let up on himself.

"I don't expect to be frustrated," Verlander said, "but the reason I'm frustrated is, I don't ever expect to be off. Even though I know that's happened every year at this point in time, even though I know that, I think maybe this is the year that it'll be perfect. It never is."

The only way he possibly let up was on the pitch count, and he did that by actually sticking to it. Verlander had surpassed his pitch count throughout his bullpen sessions, sometimes only by one pitch. He had a range of 45-50 pitches for Monday's workout.

Unlike every other live batting practice session session this week, he was on the mound at Joker Marchant Stadium, since he was the only pitcher throwing. He had a small crowd watching in the stands as he faced outfield prospect Daniel Fields and Minor League catcher Craig Albernaz, and he admitted to having a little adrenaline building as he went along.

"It sent me right back to pitching in Lakeland with 30 people in the stands," he said, referring to his days in the Florida State League in 2005.

Verlander will throw another live BP session on Thursday. If that goes well, he'll slot into the rotation from there, though manager Brad Ausmus and Jones said no date has been decided for his first start.

The goal with Verlander is to get him five Spring Training starts, which should allow him to stretch his pitch count enough to be ready for the season. Ausmus said he'd like to get Verlander ready for close to 100 pitches by the start of the season, which would be enough for the manager to feel comfortable giving Verlander the nod on Opening Day.

Who will start the season opener hasn't been decided, but Ausmus said Verlander is under consideration with Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. If Verlander gets the start for the March 31 meeting with the Royals, it would mark his seventh consecutive Opening Day assignment, something Ausmus said would be a consideration.

"If he can only go 75 pitches, that's a dangerous area to be in," Ausmus said, " because he's the type of pitcher, if he were to go out there and guys are fouling pitches off, he could be at 75 after five innings. … We'd hope he'd be closer to 100, but we'll see how it progresses."

Detroit finalizes one-year deals with Smyly, six others

Outlook: Smyly set to return to starting rotation

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers continued to progress toward finalizing contracts for the rest of their 40-man roster by reaching agreements on one-year deals with third baseman Nick Castellanos, outfielder Steven Moya, left-handers Drew Smyly and Kyle Lobstein, and relievers Jose Ortega, Luke Putkonen and Evan Reed.

The seven deals leave just eight players left to sign on the 40-man roster. All eight, as well as the seven who signed, are not yet arbitration eligible. If the two sides can't reach an agreement by a March deadline, the team can unilaterally renew a player's contract for a year at a set salary. Some agents and players opt for that route to help a potential arbitration case in future seasons.

Of the seven signings, only Smyly and Putkonen have more than a year of service time. Smyly, who will be part of the Tigers' rotation after spending last year in Detroit's bullpen, could potentially become eligible for arbitration next winter, coming close enough to three full seasons of Major League service to qualify as a Super-2.

Ausmus, Martin prepare for extended instant replay

Tigers ready to follow new manager Ausmus' lead

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers will have eight games this spring to get acquainted with the new instant replay and challenge system, giving manager Brad Ausmus and defensive coordinator Matt Martin a chance to work on their communication.

The first game with the new system is the March 12 meeting with the Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field. Martin will receive training that day with the hardware system they'll be using for video review.

"It's a trial run, so to speak," Ausmus said. "Now, it won't be as extensive. We won't have the entire setup here for training. We will have some camera angles, not as many. We'll be able to at least run the communication process and challenge some."

When Major League Baseball experimented with a replay system in the Arizona Fall League this past season, they encouraged managers to challenge plays and give umpires a chance to run through the system. Ausmus said they're also being encouraged to at least run through it a few times to get an understanding of the process.

"I'm going to challenge everything, just to try it out," Ausmus joked.

Ausmus runs bases with speedy Davis

Outlook: Davis is a solid stolen-base threat

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers have spent the past couple of mornings working on baserunning drills, trying to instill an aggressive mentality in players and push them to look for that extra base. Manager Brad Ausmus was not expecting to be challenged himself, but he was, by in his new speedy outfielder, Rajai Davis.

"I ran with Rajai Davis for two sprints [Sunday]," Ausmus said, "and I realized ... You know, when [I] play 40-and-over basketball, I'm relatively fast. But playing against world-class baseball runners, I'm not that fast.

"I was walking by, and he said, 'Why don't you run with me?' So I ran the last two with him."

Ausmus, who retired in 2010, looks closer to his playing days than any Tigers manager in quite some time. And for a catcher, he could hold his own on the bases, having reached double digits in stolen bases five times in his career.

At age 44, though, he knows his limits. By contrast, Tigers players have raved that coach Omar Vizquel looks like he could still play, even at age 46.

Davis wasn't the only Tiger to bait Ausmus. Miguel Cabrera asked Monday if Ausmus wanted to go hit in the cage with him.

"I told him no, I've got to talk to the media," Ausmus said.

Quick hits

• Ausmus will tweak the Tigers' Spring Training pregame routine this year, traveling later on short trips to face the Braves at Disney World and the Yankees in Tampa, so that the Tigers can take batting practice at home. The move, which affects five games on the spring schedule, allows Ausmus to sneak in fundamentals drills on those days.

Robbie Ray won't have to wait long for game action in a Tigers uniform. He's scheduled to follow starter Drew VerHagen in Tuesday's exhibition against Florida Southern. The rest of Tuesday's pitching slate has not been announced.

• The Tigers shortened their workout Monday to make room for their annual charity golf outing in the afternoon. Ausmus gave up golf because the sport frustrated him too much.