- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Justin Maxwell was a product of the same draft as Ryan Zimmerman, and his future is deemed nearly as bright. But the thing about developing prospects in baseball is, plans don’t always come with a firm timetable.

Maxwell is playing at Class AA Harrisburg, trying to make the final improvements to his game and position himself to be called up by the Washington Nationals. The 24-year-old outfielder’s results, at first glance, don’t suggest that he’s close to doing that this season. His manager thinks otherwise.

The way John Stearns sees it, Maxwell is filling holes in his game by developing a better awareness of the strike zone and learning when to lay off pitches. He went on the disabled list Wednesday and will miss at least a week with a right wrist injury, but Stearns doesn’t envision a long road for Maxwell to move up.

“He just needs another 100 games or so,” Stearns said. “I’ve been shocked at how well he’s able to not bite at that breaking ball out of the zone like most hitters do.”

Maxwell is hitting .233 but has cut down on his strikeouts (one every 5.21 at-bats, down from one in every 3.56 last year) and drawn 31 walks. His on-base percentage is a career-high .367.

“That really is the difference between a major league hitter and a minor league hitter,” Stearns said. “The minor league guys go after the ball out of the strike zone. The big league guys, they learn the strike zone, they learn to be patient at the plate, work the count longer. It seems like Maxwell is doing all of that right now, almost to a fault.”

Maxwell has plenty of power, as evidenced by 29 homers in 2007 - two of them in a call-up with the Nationals. He drives the ball well enough that he can afford to wait on pitches and take them to the opposite field. But every once in a while, Stearns said, the Senators need him to channel his old self and jump on a pitch.

“He’s got so much power that sometimes you want him to sit on that fastball early in the count and hit it hard somewhere,” the manager added.

It’s a balancing act that Maxwell is still learning. And even when he does, a few things are preventing him from playing for the Nationals. Washington has made it clear it plans to invest in Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, while Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena figure to be around for the foreseeable future, as well.

Stearns sees enough potential in Maxwell, however, that when he fully learns to mix power and patience, the Nationals won’t hold him back for long.

“I expect [his batting average] to come up and him to have a really good year,” Stearns said. “He’ll probably be up [with the Nationals] at some point.”

Roster moves

Left-hander Yunior Novoa was promoted to Harrisburg from Class A Potomac this week. The 23-year-old was 2-1 with four saves and a 1.38 ERA in 13 games with Potomac.

Harrisburg also called up right-handed starter Joe Norrito to solidify its rotation with Tristan Crawford on the DL. Novoa and Norrito are the fourth and fifth pitchers to move from Potomac to Harrisburg in the last month.

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