It's an old saying uttered so often as to become a cliche, but it still holds true: One man's suspension for running a catcher unnecessarily, starting a bench-clearing brawl and taunting an opposing team's fans is another man's opportunity. Over the next eight days, while Nats' center fielder and one-time leadoff man Nyjer Morgan's serving his eight-game ban for carrying out the actions described in the previous sentence in a tumultuous couple of weeks in late August and early September, Nats' outfielder and perpetual prospect Justin Maxwell will reportedly get an opportunity to play center field for the Nationals while they battle the Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves.
Maxwell's spent the majority of his time on the field in center since being drafted by the Washington Nationals with the second pick of their first Draft after relocating to the nation's capital from Montreal in 2005. (ed. note - "Behind only Ryan Zimmerman.") Maxwell was immediately recognized by Baseball America as the "Top Athlete" in the Nats' system in the first organizational rankings BA's Aaron Fitt published following the '05 Draft, and by time the next list was published the then-23-year-old outfielder had already made his MLB debut after an '07 campaign at Class-A Potomac and Savannah where he'd hit a combined 25 doubles and 27 HR's while stealing 35 bases and posting a .281/.363/.533 slash line in 114 games and 504 plate appearances, and Mr. Fitt added "Best Baserunner" to the list along with "Best Athlete" in Baseball America's January '07 rankings.
The previous September, Maxwell had played 15 games with the Nationals in September, striking out 8 times, but hitting two HR's, his 1st the first of 3 grand slams he's hit in his career, as he collected hits in 7 of his first 27 plate appearances above A-ball. Maxwell's '07 campaign earned him the distinction of being named the Nats' Minor League Player of the Year, (with John Lannan the Pitcher of the Year) as MLB.com's Bill Ladson reported in a 9/27/07 article entitled, "Notes: Nats announce Minors awards". The '07 season ended with then-Manager Manny Acta telling MLB.com's Mr. Ladson, in another article entitled, "Notes: Maxwell impresses brass", that though Maxwell needed to make improvements at the plate since he was, in Acta's words, "vulnerable to outside pitches":
"'He is a mature kid -- very smart, good makeup. If he does things right, he'll be here sooner than a lot of people think as an everyday player.'"
Maxwell's '08 season, however, would end with the third-year-pro having played just 43 games before a broken wrist suffered on a diving play in the outfield forced him from the Double-A Harrisburg Senators' lineup. Maxwell, who'd made his first appearance on the list of the Nats' top prospects in Baseball America's Aaron Fitt's late '07 list, (as the Nats' third-best outfield prospect behind '06 Draft pick Chris Marrero and '07 selection Michael Burgess), was off the list in early '09 with Burgess and '08 picks Destin Hood and J.P. Ramirez surpassing him as the top outfielders in the Nats' system at least in Mr. Fitt and Baseball America's eyes.
Maxwell played in the Florida Instructional League in the late 2008, and played winter ball in the Puerto Rican Winter League as he worked his way back, but he was a late cut from Spring Training so he could get more at bats in the Nats' minor league camp and Maxwell started the season at Triple-A before getting another call when Roger Bernadina broke his ankle on a play in center field. Less than a month after being called up, Maxwell was returned to Triple-A, again to get more AB's after Willie Harris came off the DL. In late May, Maxwell got another call-up when Elijah Dukes was injured, but after going 0 for 16 in seven games, he was once again optioned to the Nats' top affiliate in Syracuse, where he remained until September of 2009.
In 111 games total at Triple-A in '09, Maxwell hit .242/.344/.396 in 448 plate apperances, with 10 doubles, 13 HR's and 35 stolen bases, and in September with the Nationals, the 25-year-old outfielder was 19 for 65 with 4 HR's in 27 games, one of which was his second career grand slam, a game-winner off Mets' closer Francisco Rodriguez in the final home game on the 2009 schedule. Maxwell was the top outfield prospect on Baseball America's Aaron Fitt's post season rankings in 2009, but after going 5 for 50 in Spring Training in March 2010, Maxwell once again found himself starting the season in the system in spite of the fact that the Nats' decision to cut expected starter Elijah Dukes opened up right field for any player who was able to claim the spot.
Maxwell got another call-up just weeks into the season, but was back in Syracuse at the end of May, where he remained (with the exception of 3 games in July) until August, putting together a .287/.390/.439 season with 17 doubles and 6 HR's in 66 games at Triple-A. In 19 games in August, Maxwell struggled at the plate, hitting in just 3 of 26 at bats in which he struck out 12 times, but his 3rd career grand slam in 4 bases-loaded opportunities earlier this week once again put the spotlight on the soon-to-be 27-year-old "prospect". There's no guarantee he'll get the time made available by Nyjer Morgan's suspension, but he's got yet another chance to transition from a good-looking ballplayer with all the talent to succeed to an actual success story. It's not too late, but it's getting there...