"At first I was like, 'Five weeks early?' But the benefits really outweigh the negatives," said second baseman Ryan Wright, who played his first pro season at Rookie League Billings last year.
Wright, 22, was a fifth-round Draft pick last June and had yet to even experience a regular Spring Training in pro ball.
"I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and spend time in Louisville," he said. "The weather there, I don't think it gets above 50 degrees. Here, it's beautiful. I get to hit on the field, throw and get all my work in and then be with professional strength coaches every single day. It really was a no-brainer to accept an invitation like this."
The 18 campers, mostly prospects still in the lower levels of the Minors, reported to the Reds' player-development complex on Jan. 25. They started regular full-squad workouts with the rest of the Minor League camp on Thursday.
In the interim, for three hours each morning, five days a week, they worked on conditioning exercises under the direction of strength coordinator Sean Marohn and coaches Zach Gjestvang and Rigo Febles.
On some days, after running and lifting, they worked on baseball activities with Minor League coaches David Bell, Jose Nieves and Derrin Ebert.
"It's definitely a grind," said Kyle Waldrop, a 20-year-old outfielder who also played at Billings last season. "Every day, so many little things go into it -- early work, defense, hitting in the cages. You have almost a whole day of work, and then you play a game. It's every day for over a month. It's grueling, but you have to work through it. It pays off."
Some of the activities include agility skills on a footwork ladder, running using push sleds, weightlifting and cardiovascular workouts, such as sprints on a punishingly steep grass incline called "Mount Krause," named after Reds Major League strength and conditioning coach Matt Krause.
"The strength stuff had specific agendas depending on the player, like if a kid needed first-step agility or a kid just needed general strength," said Jeff Graupe, the Reds' assistant director of player development. "A lot of the first-year Latin kids, we wanted to get them up to speed before a lot of the others came in."
Campers also were given three nutritious meals per day, prepared at the complex. Dinners were put in containers for them to reheat in their hotel each night.
This is the third time the Reds have organized the winter conditioning camp. The first year had four participants; the group grew to 12 last year.
"It was an awesome experience the first time that I came," said corner infielder David Vidal, who played at Class A Dayton in 2011. "This year I like it even more because I am already used to what the training is about."
The results of the early workouts may not be obvious in March, but doing the extra work -- and the extra sprints -- is about being prepared for the marathon of a baseball season.
"I'd say it's more beneficial than grueling, but it has been grueling," Wright said. "All the lifts and all the running we've put in, the guys at this camp will be as conditioned -- if not better conditioned -- than 95 percent of the guys playing pro ball. Hopefully it will help us stay injury-free for when we hit those dog days of July and August, when people's bodies tend to break down. The goal of this is to make sure that we stay strong through a whole year."
Not all of the early work was physical. Some of the players were also instructed how to deal with the media and answer reporters' questions, encouraged to use eye contact and speak clearly.
After mock interviews, the players' performances were critiqued by a team media relations official.
"The media training was an exercise we put into place in an effort to continue the development of our young players," Graupe said. "I believe that since the media interactions happened in a controlled environment, the players were able to be more comfortable and the exercise became more constructive. Like we do with our community service initiative, we are trying to prepare the players for the responsibilities they will face upon arriving to the Major Leagues."
Recruiting players to participate in the 2013 conditioning camp could get even easier.
"The guys that were in the camp for us last year all had good seasons, both statistically and how their bodies held up," Graupe said. "We have had kids ask back in for this year."