Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Maxwell's make-or-break moment

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
At 26, Justin Maxwell may be running out of time to stick in the majors.
VIERA, Fla. -- Justin Maxwell has been on the Nationals' radar screen for some time now. It's been 2 1/2 years since the Olney, Md., native made his big-league debut, launching a grand slam into the bleachers in Miami in his third career at-bat, and fans and club officials alike have understandably been anticipating his permanent arrival ever since.

The outfielder's arrival, though, didn't come as quickly as some would have liked. Beset by injuries and an inability to produce consistently at the plate, Maxwell has spent only minimal time in the majors since that noteworthy debut in Sept. 2007. And as he enters his third spring in big-league camp, he's still yet to establish himself as a productive enough hitter to stick in Washington.

He's certainly looked at times like a complete player, a fine defensive center fielder and baserunner who can hit for power. But he's yet to do it for prolonged stretches, in part because he hasn't been able to stay healthy.

Thus at age 26, Maxwell suddenly finds himself at a make-or-break moment with his hometown organization. Barring an injury to Josh Willingham, Nyjer Morgan or Elijah Dukes, there isn't an available starting job in the Nats' outfield. But with only 55 games of big-league experience, is he capable of coming off the bench and producing despite limited playing time?

The Nationals still believe he could be more than a fourth outfielder.

"He's really a high-ceiling guy," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We will be in that situation with Justin: How much are we going to use him if he's not a regular? And is he going to get enough at-bats to stay sharp to justify him not playing every day in Triple-A? That's kind of an ongoing discussion, and we've got all spring to make that determination. But he's definitely got a good chance to make the ballclub."

Maxwell's primary competitors for the fourth outfielder's spot include Roger Bernadina (another injury-plagued 25-year-old) and Chris Duncan (a 28-year-old former platoon outfielder with the Cardinals who has seen his production decline the last two seasons).

So a job is certainly there for him to seize this spring. But as Riggleman pointed out, is it dangerous to keep a rookie (despite his advanced age) as a reserve outfielder who might only get a handful of at-bats per week?

Maxwell's stance on this is clear: He'd rather come off the bench in Washington than start in Syracuse.

"I just want to be a part of this team," he said. "Because I know we're going to do good things this year."

Maxwell found himself in a similar spot a year ago and didn't take his eventual demotion well. It took months to get over it, and he may not have fully recovered until the season's second half.

"Last year when I got sent down in April, I was pretty bummed out," he said. "I didn't know the team's plan for me then. I didn't go about it the right way. But having that experience and learning from that past ... that mentality, I'll never do that again."

Once he returned to D.C. in September, Maxwell was a new player and man. After collecting just three hits in his first 30 at-bats, he went on a tear down the stretch, hitting .322 with four homers and a 1.004 OPS over his final 25 games.

Admittedly more relaxed and more focused than he was during his earlier big-league stints, Maxwell believed that late burst in 2009 sets him up nicely entering 2010. If nothing else, the experience of standing on a major-league field no longer fazes him.

"I've been in situations now I couldn't have ever dreamed of being in as a ballplayer coming up through high school," he said. "I just know the more you play, the more you get opportunities to play, the more you're out there, the more comfortable you get."

But do the Nats have opportunities for Maxwell right now? And if not, how much longer can they wait to offer them?

At 26, he says he still feels "like a kid," but he's already older than Ryan Zimmerman, John Lannan, Jesus Flores and Elijah Dukes.

Every ballplayer reaches a point in his career where he must make the necessary leap to become a legitimate major-leaguer or else risk purgatory as a good minor-leaguer who simply can't do it at the sport's highest level.

For Justin Maxwell, that point may be now.


TBC said...

Isn't Maxwell one of the guys who's out of options now? Meaning that in order to send him to SYR they'd have to pass him through waivers?

Dave Nichols said...

there's a lot of love for Maxwell out there, but you hit the nail on the head pointing out he's already older than Zim, Lannan, Flores and Dukes.

Mark Zuckerman said...

TBC: I thought so, but after examining it closer, it appears Maxwell does have one more option year left. Though he made his debut in Sept. 2007, that was the first time he was added to the 40-man. So he's only been optioned twice: in 2008 and 2009. That leaves him with one more option this year, if I understand it correctly.

Wigi said...

Doesn't that set him up to be Jason Bergmann'd - he has options, so he goes down?

I am not saying that is the right philosophy when putting together a major league team... but I bet that raises the bar a bit... a tie goes to the player that is out of options.

Does Bernadina have options? My guess is, yes, but it is just a gut feeling.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Yes, Bernadina has an option left, too. And yes, the options game always plays a role with those final roster decisions at the end of camp (and throughout the season). We've seen it happen to Bergmann, we saw it happen to Kory Casto and we saw it happen to Maxwell last year.

Mac said...

Love the article on ESPN.com about you! Great stuff. We would all be thrilled if you could stay on the entire season.

Also, are you planning on doing a percentage of bench players or bullpen like you did with the rotation? That would be awesome.

Link:: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=hruby/100302_mark_zuckerman_washington_nationals_blogger&sportCat=mlb

peric said...

They are getting pretty crowded down in SYR with all the veteran AAA signings which include Tavares, Duncan, Owens, Loadenthal, Moresi, Smith plus Mike Daniel and Leonard Davis were promoted last year. That outfield looks just as crowded for both Maxwell and Bernadina to get playing time.

I'm not sure but it would seem more likely that trades would be in the offing? Perhaps not?

e said...

Mark -- I'm sure you've got plenty of other things to do, but if you have a moment could you inquire as to whether Opening Day tickets sold out today? As of 5:40pm, I (once again) tried to purchase 3 tickets. Each section I chose gave me the "not enough seats together, try another section". Then I tried 2. Same result. Then 1. Same result. I find it hard to believe that the Nats sold out every single seat (including the Lexus Presidential Seats)!

Farid in Idaho said...

I think that Maxwell should platoon with Nyjer Morgan in center in 2010.

Hear me out.

Last year, Morgan batted .175/.283/.223 against lefties but .344/.395/.434 against righties. For his career, he is .200/.302/.284 against lefties.

For his career, Maxwell has batted .286/.352/.429 against lefties at the major league level.

They are near equals defensively, and Maxwell steals a base every 16 at-bats compared to Morgan's one every 13 at-bats.

If you use Morgan's numbers against righties (at 400 at-bats) and Maxwell's against lefties (200 at-bats), you get a platoon that looks like this:

.327-12-61, 43 steals, .383 OBP/.432 SLG

That would protect the Nationals at the top of the order against lefties and would give the team enough major league at-bats to decide if Maxwell is a full time player.

Ted Williams platooned five of his eight starting positions in 1969, hid their imperfections (Lee Maye: .094 against lefties) and won 86 games with a team of not-very-good players.

I think it would work.

Nervous Nats Fan said...

I liked the story on ESPN. Do you have other ideas up your sleeve for how to get continuing donations? Could you set up some kind of automatic monthly payment? I am loving the blog and would be happy to continue contributing, but can't do it all at once.

peric said...

Maxwell is a better fielder than Willingham. So, you could see him there as well as center field. Harris the left handed bat is also there.

Again, you have to wonder what the trade possibilities are for Wille Harris as teams like the Rangers, who voided Kahil Green's contract, start looking around.

It looks to me like something has to give before the end of spring and beginning of May ... I may be wrong but ...

greg said...

texas is looking for a utility infielder, someone who could play SS (remember, greene was SS/3B) as well. i don't know if green really fits that need.

Anonymous8 said...

Bernadina has the upper hand in my opinion being the lefty batter and I think he would still be the fastest on the team although Tony Plush may disagree.

I would love to see Bernadina get the bunt as part of his arsenal.

Traveler8 said...

I also liked the ESPN article - kind of exciting, being part of a new wave.

Anonymous said...

Not sure what WaPo was thinking not hiring you. Compare this Maxwell article to Kilgore's (also posted today) and his is a joke. So much more depth and insight in your article. Sad.

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