Rockies hope early slugging means a Moose reborn

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies may have more in Mike Moustakas than they originally thought when they signed the 34-year-old corner infielder to a Minor League deal on March 5.

After all, Colorado made that move out of need, following a potentially season-ending shoulder injury to second baseman Brendan Rodgers that necessitated Ryan McMahon’s move from third to second. Moustakas seemed like an emergency addition, nothing more.

Just how much more the Rockies got remains to be seen, but an offseason spent with a former Major League slugger in Southern California may have revived the swing -- and therefore the output -- of the man they call “Moose.”

It’s certainly showing in the very early returns at the plate a week after Moustakas joined the club. He went 2-for-3 with a three-run double that left his bat with a 106 mph exit velocity, as well as a single, in the Rockies’ 8-7 loss to the A’s on Monday, bringing his spring average to .556 (5-for-9) with a double and a homer.

“I changed a lot of stuff with my swing,” Moustakas said. “I kind of widened out, and I worked with Marlon Byrd this offseason a lot, and kind of revamped how I used to hit. I kind of got back to what I used to be as a hitter.”

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What Moustakas used to be -- in his glory days with the Royals from 2015-17, and in two seasons thereafter with the Brewers before injuries derailed him -- was a guy who could belt 30-40 homers a year and put up offensive numbers about 15-20 percent above the league average.

What Byrd used to be was a hitter who hit more than 12 homers in a season only once over the first decade of a 15-year MLB career spent mostly with the Phillies, Nationals, Rangers and Cubs. Then he retooled his swing and proceeded to average 24 homers with a .782 OPS from 2013-15.

What many outside the game may not know is that Byrd has become something of a “slugger whisperer” since his playing days ended. He’s had pupils such as Justin Turner, who reconstructed his approach at the plate and transformed from a mediocre hitter to one of the most feared right-handed power/average threats in baseball.

How did Moose team up with Byrd? Through a mutual friend -- Moustakas’ former teammate with the Royals, Eric Hosmer.

“Hoz came out [to Southern California] for about a month and [suggested I see Byrd],” Moustakas said. “I’ve known Marlon for quite some time now, but I just never really hit with him. So I hit with him one time, liked what he was talking about, and after Hoz left for Spring Training, I just kept going back. Marlon made hitting fun again.”

So far, it’s showing. Moustakas said he added a small toe tap to improve his timing, in addition to widening his stance, getting his feet into an optimal position. He called what he did over the past few months “starting from the ground up.”

The Rockies are hoping they’ve gotten in on the ground floor of a Moustakas resurgence after a host of ailments -- forearm, quad, hip, foot, biceps, calf, you name it -- hampered him from 2020-22, leading Cincinnati to release him with a year (and $22 million) left on his four-year, $64 million contract.

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Health is an invaluable commodity, both in life and in sport.

“If I wasn’t healthy, I wouldn’t be out here,” Moustakas said. “I feel good. I feel like I can contribute to this team, and I’m having a lot of fun out here.”

He’s having fun both at the plate and in the field. To add to his hitting exploits Monday, Moustakas made a nice catch leaning over the railing of the visiting Athletics’ dugout to retire Ramón Laureano in the fourth inning.

Another byproduct of being healthy, particularly in the lower half of his body, is a more svelte-appearing Moustakas than what we’ve seen in recent years. The leaner, more flexible Moose is able to keep himself in better shape.

There are many reasons to be in great shape if you’re a professional athlete, of course, but Moustakas’ rationale goes beyond the obvious. He’s got his eyes trained on more than just a glimpse of what he once was.

“I worked really hard on conditioning this past offseason,” he said, “to get my body ready for a full season.”

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