DETROIT -- The Tigers have plenty of questions to address this offseason. Who will catch is starting to sound like less of a question than it might have been a few weeks ago.

Alex Avila's impromptu test as a regular catcher appears to have taken care of that. While manager Jim Leyland said a lot of his young players aside from Austin Jackson will be competing for spots in the lineup, Avila appears to have his spot wrapped up.

"I would say at this juncture he's more than a candidate," Leyland said Friday.

That doesn't mean the Tigers won't pursue a catcher to share time, but Avila sounds poised to assume more responsibility -- no less than a mix behind the plate and possibly more than that. It's a pretty good scenario to come out of a situation where the Tigers admittedly had to rush Avila to the big leagues.

"Now, I think he's got a chance to settle in as a good Major League catcher for a long time," Leyland said. "Left-handed-hitting catchers are pretty valuable, and I think he's got a chance to be a good one."

Avila has started 19 of Detroit's last 25 games through Friday, a stretch that partly came out of Gerald Laird's back problems. He and Laird have alternated starts this week, but Laird is a free agent at season's end. Laird said on Friday he'll weigh his options this winter, but made it clear playing time will be a big factor as he looks for a job.

"I didn't really tell them I don't want to come back," Laird said. "But if I have better options out there where I'm going to get a chance to play more, I'm probably going to go for those. I know there's going to be teams looking out there. We'll see what happens. I'm just going to look for my best options and try to find the best situation for myself and my family."

While Laird searches the market, Avila plans on focusing his offseason workouts on getting physically stronger to handle a more regular workload.

Bonderman could be making last Tigers start

DETROIT -- Jeremy Bonderman broke into the big leagues at Comerica Park seven years ago, a 20-year-old who hadn't pitched above Class A getting his first Major League start against the American League Central champion Twins.

On Saturday, the setting will be oddly familiar for what could be his last start at Comerica Park, at least in a Tigers uniform.

"It's been a long time," Bonderman said. "It's come quick, actually, though."

With Bonderman a free agent at season's end and the Tigers showing no inclination yet toward bringing him back, the 27-year-old right-hander isn't taking anything for granted. But with a winning record at stake, both for him and for his team and a contract somewhere for next year on the line, he's going to have to put his emotions aside and pitch.

Bonderman is one of just three current Tigers to have played on the 2003 squad that lost an AL-record 119 games. He took 19 of those losses on his record, and would've had more had then-manager Alan Trammell not pulled him from the rotation in September for fear of what a 20-loss year would do to a 20-year-old. That didn't sit well with his bulldog mentality, but he didn't have a choice.

That toughness is still on display these days, even if the pitcher behind it is different. He doesn't have anywhere near the 98-mph fastball he boasted then, but he still has the nasty slider. He has a better idea how to really pitch, which has been crucial for him to survive this year.

Bonderman has made no secret he'd love to stay in Detroit next season. The Tigers, for their part, have their top three rotation spots set with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, but have to decide how to fill out the back end.

"I'm going to play next year," Bonderman said. "I just don't know where it's going to be yet. I feel like I've got a lot left. Hopefully, I can get a little more of my velocity back next year."

Wherever that may be, he said he can't worry about that right now. He won't press the Tigers for an answer one way or the other. He's going to just let it play out.

"I'm not that worried about it," he said. "I mean, they have to make their own decisions. It's a business. I've been here for a long time, and I have a lot of respect for them. They're going to do what's best for the club, and that's fine with me either way. It's part of the business."

Valverde available for Detroit on Saturday

DETROIT -- Jose Valverde said he expected to be available to pitch Saturday after battling elbow tendinitis for the past week.

Valverde last pitched a week and a half ago in Texas, his only outing since Sept. 6. An MRI exam taken earlier this week showed no structural damage, but the Tigers wanted to be cautious with bringing him back. Manager Jim Leyland said he would leave it up to Valverde to tell him when he was feeling better before inserting him back into the bullpen mix.

Valverde threw on Friday and felt well enough to go.

The domino effect on the Tigers' bullpen with Valverde out has led to its share of adventures, but also some tests for pitchers in different situations. Phil Coke has been the fill-in closer, leaving setup duties to a cornucopia of Tigers relievers that has included Ryan Perry, Robbie Weinhardt, Daniel Schlereth and Eddie Bonine.

Leyland congratulates Twins on latest title

DETROIT -- The Tigers were officially eliminated from postseason contention a week ago and fell out of the thick of the race last month, but manager Jim Leyland wanted to take time out of the Twins' weekend visit to Comerica Park to congratulate Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire on another division title.

The Twins won the American League Central for the second consecutive year and the third time in the past five seasons. Even so, Leyland suggested, they don't get the credit he feels they deserve.

"Their pitchers throw strikes, they catch the ball and they're an offensive team," Leyland said. "And they have a great manager."

Leyland said the Twins' run reminds him a little of the Atlanta Braves' run in the 1990s, not the streak as much as the consistency and solid play.

"I think the perception's been small market, kind of lost up there," Leyland said. "Nobody pays much attention. The one year, they had the Cy Young, the MVP and the batting champion on the same team. These guys have good players, but they're kind of lost up there -- small market, can't spend money, don't do this, don't do that. They've got good players. Their system does a heck of a job. They're a very regimented system. The Twins way, that's the way they do it. They get the players that fit that."