GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- At Cactus and Grapefruit League sites throughout baseball, major leaguers regard spring training as drudgery, a useful means of building team chemistry, or an occupational necessity for the long season that lies ahead.
The rigors of training camp can’t compare with the routine that Byrd subjected himself to at his winter home in Los Angeles. On a 1 to 10 punishment scale, it was only a cut or two below Uma Thurman's training regimen in "Kill Bill: Volume 2."
When Byrd wasn’t honing his swing with his hitting coach, Doug Latta, he was working with his kettle bell instructor, Steve Cotter. Byrd also has a personal sprint coach, a Muay Thai kicking-boxing instructor and a Bulgarian Bag coach.
Fans and media members might look at Byrd’s 6-foot, 245-pound physique and think he’s conditioning-impaired. That observation couldn’t be further from reality. In an age of more stringent PED testing and amphetamine bans, ballplayers who last until their late 30s or early 40s are now the exception. So offseason training is paramount.
Byrd had his own brush with MLB's drug policy in 2012, when he received a 50-game suspension for taking a banned substance. He addressed the issue openly at the time and said he had mistakenly taken a prohibited substance to deal with a personal medical issue -- not to gain a competitive advantage on the field.
As he enters his late 30s, Byrd continues to ramp up his fitness regimen because he knows it's the best way to increase his baseball shelf life.
"Look at guys like Julio Franco or Derek Jeter or LaTroy Hawkins," Byrd said. "What they’ve done (in terms of longevity) is so impressive. It’s tough, but you have to reinvent yourself with ways that help keep you on the field.
"I can’t run to get in shape, so I need to do other things," Byrd said. "This is all for flexibility, strength and cardio.”
Byrd enjoyed one of his most productive seasons last year at age 36. Although he ranked second in the majors to former Phillies teammate Ryan Howard with 185 strikeouts, Byrd hit a career-high 25 homers in a personal-high 591 at-bats. Byrd also ranked a creditable 13th among big-league right fielders with six Defensive Runs Saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
The Reds have Jay Bruce in right field and Billy Hamilton in center, so they acquired Byrd in a New Year’s Eve trade for minor-league pitcher Ben Lively in hopes of upgrading another outfield position in need. Last year, Ryan Ludwick, Chris Heisey, Skip Schumaker and five other Reds left fielders hit a combined .233 with 10 home runs. Cincinnati’s left fielders ranked 27th in the majors with an aggregate .627 OPS.
The Reds are looking for solid defense in left from Byrd, consistent middle-of-the-order production and a low-maintenance, professional approach that will make him a nice complement to Joey Votto, Bruce, Brandon Phillips and the younger hitters in Cincinnati’s lineup.
“He plays the game the right way, and we’ve really been pumping that message,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “We have to show up ready to play every day and represent the game and the Reds the right way. I’ve always admired that about Marlon: It’s just been a part of who he is as a player. The homers and RBIs and doubles and defense and baserunning instincts don’t hurt, either.”
Like Jimmy Rollins, who left Philadelphia for the Dodgers by trade in December, Byrd has no complaints about the way Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. handled the end of his tenure with the team. Byrd has a $8 million option for 2016 that vests if he accrues 463 plate appearances this season. After logging 637 plate appearances in 2014, he appears to be a lock to get there. Byrd should also enjoy a relatively comfortable transition from Citizens Bank Park in Philly to Great American Ball Park, the fourth most homer-friendly venue in the game in 2014.
As Byrd duly notes, Rollins had leverage because of his 10-and-5 service time rights. Byrd had no such trade protection.
“Jimmy had a say in where he wanted to go,” Byrd said. “I didn’t. I could have gone to a team that wanted me to platoon, and I have a vesting option next year. For Ruben to put me in this position, with a great organization in a great hitters' park, I can’t complain at all. He did right by me. And he didn’t have to -- not one bit.”
Price: Reds need a few 'surprises' up their sleeves
Bryan Price thinks Reds general manager Walt Jocketty made two nice, unheralded offseason acquisitions in the additions of Byrd and reliever Burke Badenhop. If the moves failed to generate much enthusiasm nationally, Price conceded, it’s because the Reds' bandwagon is a lonely place these days.
“We’re going to be that under-the-radar team,” Price said. “We’re not picked in the top two or three in our division. We’re looked at as the fourth- or fifth-best team in the NL Central, so who really cares what the Reds did if only a few people see us as contenders?”
A lot of skepticism surrounding the Reds revolves around the lack of depth in their rotation since they traded Mat Latos to Miami and Alfredo Simon to Detroit in the offseason. The Reds have Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey (who’s returning from flexor tendon surgery) in the top three spots in the rotation, and Anthony DeSclafani, Tony Cingrani and Jason Marquis competing for the final two openings. Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias, veteran Paul Maholm and youngsters David Holmberg and Michael Lorenzen are among the other pitchers getting extensive looks in camp.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of these guys on our team on Opening Day,” Price said. “It’s just a risk-reward thing. Maybe we’ll bring guys to the big leagues a little bit early and take that chance to see if it’s going to pay dividends.
“We need to have a surprise in our rotation and a surprise or two in our bullpen -- guys that come in with an opportunity and take advantage of it. That’s something we’re going to need to be really good this year.”