GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Carl Crawford's elbow irritation has improved enough that he will start hitting off a tee on Thursday, but it still appears unlikely the Dodgers outfielder will be ready for Opening Day.

Crawford, who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction in August, was shut down from hitting and throwing for a week when he experienced discomfort. He'll begin hitting, without throwing, as the club attempts to determine which activity caused the irritation.

"He's doing good, not feeling anything at all," manager Don Mattingly said. "He'll be monitored now on a rehab program by the number of swings taken. He'll start in the cage. It will be controlled."

Crawford has been able to do other baseball activities like baserunning and shagging, so it isn't as if he's beginning Spring Training all over. But the club wants to avoid another elbow episode.

"One thing at a time. If there's no trouble in one area, we'll move to the next," Mattingly said. "If something flares up, we want to know what causes it."

Mattingly said it was too early to guess when Crawford would appear in a game, another indication that being fully ready for Opening Day seems overly optimistic.

"We want to be cautious at first," Mattingly said. "[The trainers] don't want it to flare up doing too much too fast."

In the meantime, the Dodgers expect playing time in left field to go to Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston, while taking extended looks at Alex Castellanos, Elian Herrera and even Cuba import Yasiel Puig.