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[August 23rd] -- When the Washington Nationals played their inagural season in 2005, I payed close attention to the National's minor league teams. Oh, I didn't look at the individual players; there wasn't anyone to keep tabs on. No, I would check in and see how the teams were doing in the standings. These days, however, things are different. I couldn't care less about team records. Each evening, I scour the box scores to see how our prospects are doing. Chris Marrero, the Nationals' top draft pick last year, continues to dominate. Marrero, 18, has not only been named the best hitting prospect in two different leagues, but now Baseball Prospectus has anointed him as the second best corner outfielder in all of minor league baseball. He's great now, will be great in the future, and darn well should be as a number one pick. That said, Justin Maxwell - on the whole - is having a much better year.

Go figure.

The Nationals signed outfielder Justin Maxwell in the 2005, the team's second overall pick, taken in the 4th round of the draft (The Nationals lost their 2nd and 3rd round picks when the signed Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla). Maxwell, who graduated from the University of Maryland, had rebuffed the team's efforts to sign him because of the contract's structure and not its financial considerations. Team officials described the negotiations as "amicable." My guess is the contract addressed his injury plagued seasons of 2004 and 2005. Injuries in those two years robbed Maxwell of what would have been a sure first round selection in the amateur draft.

An inside fastball during spring practice in 2004 broke a bone in his forearm, forcing him to miss the entire season. He tried to play in the Cape-Cod League that summer but broke a finger there effectively ended his year.

Seven games into Maryland's 2005 season, he broke a bone in his hand, ending his collegiate career. Nationals GM Jim Bowden drafted him not on what he had done during his career, but rather what he could do. The term "high risk, high reward" fits Justin Maxwell perfectly.

Maxwell has been a star at every level. He played in the Cape-Cod League in 2004 and hit .307 with 47 hits and 2 home runs. In his abbreviated 2005 season at Maryland, the 6'5", 220 lb outfielder batted .455 with 3 home runs and 10 RBI's. He started the 2006 season at low-A Savannah, but struggled, hitting just .172 in 58 at-bats. And those struggles weren't surprising considering how few games he had played over the last four years. He joined Vermont when their short season started, and played very well, batting .269-4-33 with 20 stolen bases. The Lake Monster's general manager told me last winter that Maxwell was his favorite player.

He was drafted in 2001 by the Orioles, and again in 2004 by the Rangers. Texas scout Grady Fuson called Maxwell "one of the top college players" in 2004, and said that Maxwell "could very well be one of our most important selections in some time." Maxwell didn't sign with the Rangers.

Maxwell is both powerful and fast, and is often compared to former Met great Daryl Strawberry. His swing has a high arc, allowing him to not only drive balls, but drive them very high and very deep.

While his physical tools might be compared to Strawberry, his personality is more like Cal Ripken, which is good for him and great for the organization. Sean Welsh, GM of the Bourne Braves, a summer-league team Maxwell played for two seasons ago, said that he's as apt to be reading his Bible as he his sanding his bats in preparation for the next day's game.

Things could change, but - for now anyway - Justin Maxwell is looking to be more "reward" than "risk." The problem with him - if there is one - is his age. Maxwell is 23 and playing against kids four or five years his junior. Common sense suggests that Maxwell should be overpowering the opposition. How would he do against, say, 'AA' competition? I guess we'll know next year. One thing that Maxwell doesn't want to do is end up being a 26 year old rookie. Kory Casto was a 25 year-old rookie this spring and was given an opportunity to play with the Nationals, an opportunity that went poorly. Now remember, this was the team's top minor league prospect the past two years. He gets 54 major league at-bats and since then, no one has mentioned his name as being part of the team's future. Why? Because he'll be 26 next spring and doesn't have any more chances to screw up. Chris Marrero was an 18 year old at Potomac. Kory Casto was 23. So is Maxwell.

If Justin has any hopes of making it to the major leagues, he needs to accelerate his advancement and go into spring training 2008 ready to compete for a job.

He doesn't want to be a 25 year old rookie.

Just ask Kory Casto.

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