Justin Maxwell’s Big & Meaningless Spring

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Late-March is a cruel time of year for baseball fans. Spring Training games have become dull and monotonous while regular season games are still two weeks away. It’s a horrible limbo of meaningless baseball, and we often wind up spending too much time trying to find meaning in games that don’t count. We know we shouldn’t do it, but subconsciously it’s unavoidable. We want to believe the big breakout is coming or that so-and-so really did develop another pitch. It’s just a natural part of Spring Training.

Yankees camp is no different this year. Career journeyman Clay Rapada looks like the answer to our LOOGY prayers, Phil Hughes has been throwing the best changeups of his life, and both Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez look like the best hitting shortstop in the American League. Perhaps the most impressive player in camp has been career up-and-down guy Justin Maxwell. He’s hit .414/.485/.586 in camp after putting together a .418 wOBA with 16 homers in 204 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton in 2011. His performance has been so impressive that some are wondering if he should break camp with the team rather than someone like Raul Ibanez.

I think there is some merit to that line of thinking, especially since Maxwell is just 28 years old and has significant tools. He passes the eye test at 6-foot-5 and 235 lbs., and all throughout his lengthy Triple-A career (924 PA) he’s shown power (.192 ISO), patience (12.4 BB%), and speed (62-for-79 in stolen base attempts, 78.5%). Maxwell is also capable of playing all three outfield spots, though his throwing arm isn’t anything to write home about. His biggest drawback is his complete inability to make consistent contact. Maxwell has struck out in 30.6% of his Triple-A plate appearances, and that big Triple-A performance last year came with a 35.3 K%. That’s unfathomable. It’s a Mark Reynolds strikeout rate against minor league pitchers.

Back in December I wrote about the possibility of Maxwell serving as the Yankees fourth outfielder/lefty masher should Andruw Jones sign elsewhere, and my opinion of him hasn’t really changed. Thirty-three plate appearances in Spring Training shouldn’t sway your opinion about any player. Hell, 33 regular season plate appearances shouldn’t change your opinion. It’s a week’s worth of playing time, that’s it. Maxwell has done the majority of his work off the bench this spring, which means a lot of that damage has come against the opponent’s second string, minor league pitchers we already know he can mash. The only thing we’ve learned about Maxwell this month is that his shoulder is healthy after he tore his labrum making a catch at the wall last May.

If nothing else, Maxwell has been an interesting story this spring. I have a hard time seeing him as anything more than a backup plan at the moment, and the Yankees are going to be forced to make a decision about his future pretty soon because he’s out of minor league options. With so many teams looking for outfield help — Braves, Mets, Nationals, Marlins, and Indians, among others — there’s bound to be a trade match somewhere. Out of options players usually don’t command much in a trade, but maybe Maxwell’s big spring means the Yankees can get a Grade-C prospect in return rather than a Grade-D prospect. It is Spring Training after all, a man can dream.

I think last year’s shoulder injury really derailed whatever Yankees career Maxwell may have had. Had he stayed healthy all year, we certainly would have seen him with the big league team last summer, perhaps instead of Dickerson for all that time. We never got a look at him as a September call-up and never got to see what could come from extended work with Kevin Long. There’s a non-zero chance the Spring Training performance is a sign of things to come, but I wouldn’t put money on it. The Yankees don’t have much time left to evaluate him, but a decision about his future is due soon.

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Pondering the three without options

As far as Spring Training position battles go, the Yanks have few, and those they have aren’t very compelling. The pitching staff has the non-problem of having three hurlers — A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes — for one rotation spot, and barring an injury, the starting lineup is set in stone. It will be, then, business in Tampa as the Yanks will use March to fine-tune the team for the regular season.

Yet, the club will have to make some decisions, and it may come down to those who are out of options. As I see it now, the Yanks have 23 guys with their tickets punched to the 25-man roster. It goes a little something like this:

Pitchers (12)
Burnett
Garcia
Hughes
Kuroda
Logan
Nova
Pineda
Rivera
Robertson
Sabathia
Soriano
Wade

Catchers (2)
Martin
Cervelli

Infielders (5)
Cano
Jeter
Nunez
Rodriguez
Teixeira

Outfielders (4)
Gardner
Granderson
Jones
Swisher

This array of players leaves us with few noticeable holes. With Jones set to DH against southpaws, they could use another bat who can handle right-handers and serve as a weapon off the bench. They also could carry another infielder, as they did for much of last year. The in-house options include Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird while Eric Chavez remains a free agent. We’ve heard Bill Hall’s name bandied about, but he hasn’t yet received his non-roster invitation to Spring Training yet.

For the empty outfield/DH spot, the Yanks could still look to the free agent market for help. Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez and Hideki Matsui have all been linked, one way or another, to the Yanks this winter. It’s possible one of them could take spot No. 24 or 25. The Yanks though will let those players’ prices drop before making any sort of move. If one happens, it will be on our terms, and not yours, the Yanks’ brain trust has telegraphed.

The in-house options are Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, and they’ll either break camp with the Yanks or on some other team. The two of them — along with Boone Logan, the only lefty on the 40-man with Major League experience — are out of options. The Yanks will have to take Dickerson and Maxwell with them north if they want to keep them or else the two players will have to clear waivers to remain in the Yanks’ system.

Throughout the winter, Mike has examined these two players in depth. He looked at Dickerson’s possible role earlier this month and Maxwell’s potential in December. Of the two of them, Dickerson seems to hit right-handers far better than Maxwell has, and that’s a need the Yanks have right now. The club may also be able to flip Maxwell for something reasonably useful as he’s a few years younger than Dickerson.

Complicating the roster dance are Brad Meyers, a right-hander, and Cesar Cabral, a lefty. The Yanks grabbed these two guys during the Rule 5 draft. Meyers would have to go back to the Nationals if the Yanks opt to exclude him from the 25-man, and Cabral could pick free agency as he’s a two-time Rule 5er. Cabral also would give the Yanks more bullpen options and pitched exceptionally well in Winter Ball this year. As Logan is out of options, he won’t bump Boone, but a solid spring could make the Yanks think twice about a second southpaw in the pen.

So for the Yankees, the big battles are all but over. We have to pick a fifth starter from a group of three guys who are all flawed for various reasons, and the last two guys on the team have to earn that trip to the Bronx. The guys without options have the inside track, but even then, they’re expendable AAAA types. With two weeks until pitchers and catchers, that’s not a bad problem to have.

The Justin Maxwell Option

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees have a very balanced outfield situation, at least in terms of the 40-man roster. Their big league outfield is set with Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner, a three-man unit that’s been the best in the AL and arguably the best in baseball over the last two seasons. Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are both on the 40-man but are still a ways off from being big league options. Then there’s Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, the former of whom we saw quite a bit of last season. The latter is still very much an unknown.

Maxwell, 28, was having a dynamite season with Triple-A Scranton this past summer (.418 wOBA and 16 homers in 48 games) before he tore his labrum robbing a homer at the wall. He had surgery and his season was over before the calendar flipped to June, though he picked up some service time late in September when the Yankees called him up and immediately placed on the 60-day DL to free up a 40-man spot for Jesus Montero. When they needed to clear more 40-man space this offseason, they opted to release Greg Golson and designate Colin Curtis for assignment rather than dump Maxwell. That’s a pretty good sign that they think he has some value.

Chad Jennings spoke to VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman yesterday, who indicated that Maxwell is expected to be healthy next season and has a chance to contribute off the bench. “He’s got some tools, and he’s a high-caliber individual who works,” said Newman, who isn’t kidding about the tools part. When Baseball America ranked Maxwell as the Nationals eighth best prospect prior to the 2010 season (the last time he was prospect eligible), this was part of their scouting report (subs. req’d) …

A physical specimen with plus athleticism, Maxwell has above-average power potential and a patient offensive approach. Nats hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first-base coach Marquis Grissom got the idea to lower his hands to chest level after watching video of other long-levered sluggers like Willie Stargell and Dave Winfield, and the adjustment fueled Maxwell’s September surge by getting him in a stronger position to drive the ball more consistently. He’s a plus runner who stole 41 bases in 50 tries last season. He’s also an above-average defender in center field with excellent range and instincts.

As wonderful as that sounds, Maxwell’s weakness has always been his inability to make consistent, quality contact. He’s drawn walks (14.6%), hit for solid power (.178 ISO), and been a threat on the bases (11-for-13 in stolen base attempts) in his 260 big league plate appearances, but he’s hit just .201 and has struck out 31.9% of the time. In 924 career Triple-A plate appearances, he owns a 12.4% walk rate (very good), a .192 ISO (also very good), gone 62-for-79 in stolen base attempts (78.5% success rate, pretty good), a .259 batting average (decent at best), and a 30.6% strikeout rate (very bad). The guy does everything but get the bat on the ball with regularity.

If the Yankees truly feel that Maxwell can help the team off the bench, his bench chance to do so would be as a defensive replacement and a platoon bat against lefties. He has shown a sizable platoon split in his limited big league time, and also demolished lefties in Triple-A this past season with a similar split throughout his minor league career. In a perfect world, the Yankees would just send Maxwell back to Triple-A this season with an eye towards the second half or 2013, but he’s out of minor league options. They can’t send him to the minors without first passing him through waivers, and that creates a bit of a roster problem.

When it comes to next year’s fourth outfielder, I think Plan A, B, and C should be Andruw Jones. He did everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to do in 2011 — hit for power, draw walks, hit lefties, play average defense, contribute in the clubhouse — which was nothing more than a repeat of his 2010 season with the White Sox. If he wants to come back, and it sounds like he does, then they should welcome him back with open arms. However, if the Yankees drag their feet and Jones ends up elsewhere, letting Maxwell compete with a non-roster invite or two (Scott Hairston? Conor Jackson?) for the job is a pretty decent backup plan. He has some interesting tools, so they might as well see what he can do if Andruw doesn’t come back.

Joba, Maxwell activated from 60-day DL; Corona outrighted

Via Mark Feinsand, the Yankees have reinstated Joba Chamberlain, Justin Maxwell, and Reegie Corona from the 60-day DL. There’s no DL in the offseason, so these guys had to be activated at some point. Corona was then outrighted off the 40-man roster, ending one of the oddest 40-man stints in memory. He’s a poor man’s Ramiro Pena, if you can believe that.

Anyway, the 40-man roster now sits at 39 players with four more 60-day DL guys still yet to be activated: Pedro Feliciano, Colin Curtis, Damaso Marte, and Sergio Mitre. Marte and Mitre are goners, obviously.

Ryan Pope designated for assignment among flurry of moves

Via Mike Ashmore and Mark Feinsand, the Yankees have cleared space on the 40-man roster for Jesus Montero and Scott Proctor by designating Ryan Pope for assignment and placing Justin Maxwell on the 60-day DL. Think about that, Pope got DFA’d for Jesus.

In other news, Chad Jennings and Joel Sherman report that both Lance Pendleton and Raul Valdes have been called up in addition to Brandon Laird, Chris Dickerson, Montero, and Proctor, so the Yankees have plenty of pitching available tonight. Jack Curry says Hector Noesi and Aaron Laffey are next line for a call-up, but they have to wait for the ten-day period to expire before coming back to the bigs. Montero, by the way, is in the lineup tonight. He’s batting seventh as the DH, and has already caught a bullpen session.

Mailbag: Sizemore, Posada, Maxwell, K-Rod

Extra long edition of the RAB Mailbag this week, so I tried to keep the answers as short as possible. I figure short answers and more questions if better than long answers and fewer questions. Anyway, if you want to send in a question, just use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

(AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Mike asks: I know that starting pitching will be a priority but if Cleveland makes Grady Sizemore available this year should we go after him? What would he cost in terms of prospects?

Sizemore has been ridiculously good since coming off the disabled list (.390/.432/.878), but there are a few problems: 1) it’s a small sample, will it last?, b) Cleveland is actually good right now, I doubt they’re looking to sell right now, and c) you have to assume you’re only getting him for the rest of the year since his club option for 2012 becomes a player option if traded. He’s great and would be an upgrade over Brett Gardner in left, but the cost is likely to be greater than the return. Believe it or not, I’d rather rent Carlos Beltran than Sizemore, since the cost figures to be much lower.

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The Bench Takes Shape

Update (5:43pm): Lots and lots of updates via Bryan Hoch and Ben Shpigel. First of all, that Sanchez trade? Forget it. He’s being sold to a team in Japan, where I assume he’ll have a much greater opportunity. Good luck to him. Fat Sanchezes 4 life.

We also have ourselves a bench now. Jesus Montero, Ramiro Pena, Justin Maxwell, and Doug Bernier were all sent to Triple-A this afternoon while Austin Romine went back to Double-A Trenton. Ronnie Belliard was released (nice knowin’ ya), and Mark Prior is going to hang around in Tampa for a while, which I assume means Extended Spring Training. Based on all that, the big league bench will consist of Chavez, Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez, and Gustavo Molina. Curtis Granderson‘s replacement is still TBD, if one is even needed.

Original Post (4:30pm): As Spring Training nears an end, the Yanks’ Opening Day roster and 40-man are starting to take shape. We have a few afternoon updates including news of a new addition to the Yanks. As they announced in their game notes release this afternoon, the Yankees have signed Eric Chavez to a Major League contract and have added him to the 25-man roster. Chavez had been in camp on a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite, and he has impressed everyone this spring. He hit .405/.432/.571 in 42 at bats and will spell A-Rod and Mark Teixeira at the corners this year.

Via Mark Feinsand, we learn that Romulo Sanchez was seen shaking hands and saying his goodbyes in the clubhouse, indicating that the out-of-options right-hander has been traded or released. Problem is the Yankees haven’t announced where to or for what yet, so stay tuned. We first heard that something was up with Romulo yesterday.

Via Bryan Hoch and Ben Shpigel, lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano will stay behind in Tampa when the team heads north for Opening Day and begin the season on the disabled list. He expected to be there “for a few weeks,” which doesn’t sound good but could easily mean the 15-day minimum. Feliciano’s been dealing with a triceps issue and hasn’t appear in the game in about two weeks now. That’s a shame.