SAN DIEGO | There was a time, before the minor league struggles and injuries, when everyone would have looked at Justin Maxwell and figured he would be the Washington Nationals’ starting center fielder by September 2009.
Here was a bright, athletic, lanky center fielder. College product. Ran like a gazelle. Showed power at the plate. Maxwell basically had everything scouts look for, and when the Nationals took him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, it was widely assumed the Olney native would ascend to the big leagues after a short apprenticeship.
But it hasn’t happened that way. While Maxwell has languished in the minors, the Nationals have swung multiple deals in hopes of bringing in the major league center fielder that the 25-year-old has yet to become.
And now he’s back in the big leagues for the fourth time, partially because Nyjer Morgan, who appears to be the long-term solution in center field, is out for the season. Maxwell’s latest shot with the Nationals should be his longest. It could also be his last.
Maxwell turns 26 in November and is completing his third full professional season. That means if the Nationals remove him from their 40-man roster after the season, he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December.
His shot to secure a future with the Nationals could be swayed by how he plays this month. For the University of Maryland product, the trick is to remove that reality from the equation.
“You don’t try to put too much pressure on yourself,” Maxwell said. “If you start to worry about what everyone else is doing, you lose sight of what your goals are. You just try to stay positive and do what you can do.”
To that end, Maxwell has positioned himself for a different outcome in the major leagues than his two stints early this year, which ended quickly after he hit .125 in 13 games and looked nothing like the three-homer surge he posted at the end of 2007. He closed his stance and shortened his swing in the middle of the summer, which led to a second-half surge that has helped Maxwell hit 13 home runs at Class AAA Syracuse.
He has been so focused on the Chiefs’ International League pennant race - the first one Maxwell said he has been a part of since he was in the Cape Cod League - that he didn’t even know what precipitated his call-up until he saw online Monday that second baseman Ronnie Belliard had been traded, opening up the roster spot Maxwell had landed the day before.
“I was definitely surprised because I really wanted to experience [a pennant race],” he said. “To have that intensity of playoff baseball, there’s nothing like it.”
Maxwell will be in a different kind of fight this month, though.
Because Morgan played so well before breaking his left hand, he seems to have sealed the center-field job for next season. Josh Willingham is also a virtual lock in left, which hypothetically leaves Maxwell fighting with Elijah Dukes and several others - not to mention whomever the Nationals acquire this winter - for playing time in right field.
He lost most of last season with a fractured wrist and is still trying to make up the at-bats that general manager Mike Rizzo said Maxwell needs to get to the point he should be at for his age.
Those could be tough to come by this month, though. Interim manager Jim Riggleman said Maxwell will lead off Tuesday but won’t be awarded heaps of playing time.
“In Triple-A, he was playing every day, getting into a little bit of a rhythm,” Riggleman said. “I think it’ll be an ongoing evaluation as we see him here in September, as we see him in spring training. Sooner or later, everything will just kick in and he’ll put it together offensively.”
He’ll have to do it soon, though. Or else his run with the Nationals could stop well short of where it was projected to wind up a few short years ago.
“I’m not going to look at it as he has to prove anything to me, because ‘prove’ means you put pressure on yourself,” Rizzo said. “He needs to let his ability flow. He’s got all the ingredients to be a really good major league player.”