DETROIT -- Jim Leyland made a point early in Spring Training: Alex Avila needed to be more aggressive at the plate. It might not get him to his 2011 form, but it would give him a chance to be better than last year.
It's early, but Tuesday's home run off Jays starter Brandon Morrow was an early reward for him, and an early sign of encouragement for the Tigers' manager.
"I like what I'm seeing," Leyland said Wednesday morning "He's turning the bat loose. It's got a loud sound. He's got some juice in his bat, and I'm liking what I'm seeing right now."
It's not a major difference statistically. Avila entered the day 5-for-22 overall with five strikeouts along with a pair of solo home runs. Tuesday's homer was his second hit on six occasions when he has put the first pitch in play.
The bigger difference, albeit a small sample size, is the percentage of first pitches Avila has tried to hit. He has swung at the first pitch in 42 percent of his at-bats entering Wednesday, by far the highest percentage of his career. By contrast, he swung at 29 percent of first pitches last year.
"He's letting it fly at the first strike," Leyland said. "That's what I've been looking for."
Valverde throws in Florida to begin comeback effort
DETROIT -- Jose Valverde's road toward a potential return to the Tigers' bullpen officially began Wednesday with a bullpen session on the fields at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Fla.
Valverde, signed last week to a Minor League contract, arrived in Florida earlier in the week after visa issues briefly delayed his departure from his native Dominican Republic. He had been throwing bullpen sessions every other day, according to agent Scott Boras, so he was able to throw right away.
From there, Valverde is expected to progress similarly quickly. He's scheduled to throw an inning in an extended spring training game on Friday, followed by one or two innings in a scrimmage game Monday.
At some point, possibly after just a few extended spring appearances, Valverde is expected to get his test at Triple-A Toledo. He has a May 5 opt-out clause if he's not in the Majors, but the Tigers might make a decision well before then.
Martinez back in lineup after brief absence
DETROIT -- Victor Martinez's absence from the Tigers' starting lineup lasted a day. Detroit's designated hitter returned Wednesday after missing Tuesday's game with a cut on the top of his right thumb.
The cut required eight stitches.
"The word is that it doesn't seem to bother him at all [swinging] right-handed, but I can't swear to that," manager Jim Leyland said.
With a left-handed pitcher, Mark Buehrle, scheduled to start for the Jays, Martinez wouldn't have to worry about swinging from the left side.
Benoit available as go-to closer, with limitations
DETROIT -- On the day that Jose Valverde began working out for the Tigers at their Spring Training complex, manager Jim Leyland reiterated his stance on his bullpen.
"On a lot of the days, if it's doable, I think [Joaquin] Benoit is the most experienced and versatile enough against righties and lefties to pitch the ninth," Leyland said. "But it's not going to be doable every day. You're liable to see anybody at any time ... until something else happens, if it does happen."
There will still be limits on Benoit, whose workload has been watched closely ever since he became a Tiger with a three-year contract before the 2011 season. He's the same pitcher who came back from labrum surgery four years ago.
For one, Leyland said it's "very unlikely" Benoit would close three consecutive days. For another, Leyland said he would like to avoid pitching Benoit in more than one inning, something he did twice last week in Minnesota.
"I feel comfortable closing a game with him anytime," Leyland said. "But you have to be careful. How much can he pitch? How many times a week? How much do you have to watch so that you don't have him blown out? You have to be careful with these pitchers, all of them, to maintain them the way you want to maintain them."
One thing that will make a difference, Leyland said, will be the starters. Only one of them pitched into the sixth inning the first time through the rotation, but Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez both pitched through the seventh inning since then.
"If the starters do what we think they're capable of doing, at some point things will mesh," Leyland said. "And if they don't, then it won't make any difference, because we won't win anyway."
Dombrowski a chairman on MLB diversity initiative
DETROIT -- Tigers CEO, president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has been named as a chairman on Major League Baseball's new On-Field Diversity Task Force, announced Wednesday "to address the talent pipeline that impacts the representation and development of diverse players and on-field personnel in Major League Baseball, particularly African-Americans," according to a press release.
Dombrowski has become an influential figure in MLB over the years. He has represented the Tigers at MLB Owners Meetings regularly, and he was recognized at the General Managers Meetings last fall with the John Schuerholz Award for 25 years as a GM.
Others on the 18-person committee include Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, who chairs MLB's Diversity Oversight Committee, Cleveland Indians owner Larry Dolan and White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams.
Also on the committee is former Tigers first baseman Tony Clark, now the director of player services for the MLB Players Association.