Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
At 26, Justin Maxwell may be running out of time to stick in the majors.
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.