In baseball, there are some perks associated with the last place team. The No. 1 draft pick is an obvious advantage. The next biggest advantage is the first choice for claiming major league players placed on waivers. Justin Maxwell may be one of the more successful waiver claims in the Luhnow era. Fangraphs listed Maxwell as one of the 10 best part time position players in the major leagues last year. Jeff Luhnow previously has said that he would like to see what Maxwell can do with a full season of starting at bats. So, it's a good assumption that Maxwell will get plenty of opportunity in 2013.
Maxwell was selected by the Nationals out the University of Maryland in the 4th round of the 2005 draft. He played about 75% of his minor league games in CF, with the remainder scattered between RF and LF. In 7 minor league seasons, Maxwell posted a slash line of .261, .356, .456, .812. Aside from his initial short season league, Maxwell has never posted an OPS below .800 at any minor league level. With the exception of a few rehab plate appearances in the PCL, J-Max's batting stats have been posted in neutral or pitchers' leagues. In other words, these are not Pacific Coast League or California League fueled offensive numbers.
Maxwell's progress has been impeded by injuries over his career. Maxwell has undergone arm surgery, which may have weakened his throwing ability. This might limit his outfield positions to LF and CF. Maxwell saw sporadic playing time with the Nationals ML team, averaging less than 70 plate appearances over three season.
He was traded by the Nationals to the Yankees in February, 2011. Maxwell proceeded to tear up the International League in 2011. He posted a .946 OPS and an impressive .328 isolated power (ISO). Maxwell was invited to spring training by the Yankees in 2012, and his offense was impressive. So impressive that the Astros plucked him off waivers in early April, 2012. Reportedly other teams had put in claims too. At the time, some of the TCB commenters were scratching their heads over the waiver claim. Maxwell wasn't well known, and his sporadic playing time with the Nats' ML team didn't produce appealing major league offensive stats.
Despite the lack of experience, at age 29, Maxwell will be one of the older Astros' players. However, Maxwell has four years of team control remaining, which enhances his value.
Maxwell's most valuable position is CF, and the Astros were inclined to give Jordan Schafer an extended try out in CF in 2012. In addition, Maxwell was nicked up by injuries during the season. As a result, Maxwell was given only 362 plate appearances. Despite the limited playing time, Maxwell hit 18 HRs to lead the team. He also led the Astros in ISO (.232). Maxwell was No. 2 in WAR (2.3), base running (1.5), and RBIs (53). 18 HRs, 2.3 WAR, and 53 RBIs in approximately a half-time role. Are you kidding me? Maxwell's slash line: .229, .304, .460, .764. Maxwell was one of the Astros' most clutch hitters, with a 1.172 OPS with runners in scoring position. Take it for what it's worth, since the "skill" component of clutch-ness is debatable.
Maxwell is the classic 3 True Outcome players, meaning that he projects to have a high K rate, a good BB rate, and a high HR total. Early last season, I wrote about Maxwell as a 3 TO player; one can draw analogies to Jack Cust who had some of the most productive 3 TO seasons in history. Cust, like Maxwell, was picked up by Oakland in his late 20's, after he had posted prolific stats in the minor leagues. Unlike Cust, Maxwell is capable of playing a premium defensive position. Maxwell's advanced defensive stats in CF last year were excellent. Even assuming some regression, Maxwell should project as at least a slightly above average defender.
Maxwell had a decent BB rate (9.1%) on the Astros last year. Given that Maxwell routinely exhibited double digit percentage BB rates in the minor leagues, I think he is likely to improve his walk rate over 2012. As alluded by the 3 TO label, Maxwell's Achilles Heel is the strike out, with a stunning 32% K rate. This suppresses his batting average. Maxwell, who stands 6-5, is also a good base runner; his long strides can be a sight to behold on extra base hits. Maxwell hasn't been given many green lights at the ML level, but he had some nice 35 stolen base seasons in the minors. Maxwell is 131 out of 165 stolen base attempts in the minors (80% success rate).
Maxwell's premium skill is power. His HRs are massive, majestic, monumental...you choose the word. He hit the 6th longest HR in the majors last year (471 feet), which you can watch here.
What to Expect in 2013
Given the liklihood that Maxwell will be given an opportunity as a full time player for the first time in his career, he will be one of the more interesting stories to follow on the team. A positive sign for Maxwell's offense is that his BABIP last season was lower than his x-BABIP, as I wrote here, implying that he could have some beneficial regression in his batting average.
The Bill James projection system, viewed as optimistic by some, predicts a .244, .331, .465, .796 slash line. An average of four other projection systems: .223, .310, .417, .727. Given his sporadic playing time, the projection systems may not be able to get an accurate view of J-Max. Whether it's just fan boy optimism or not, I wouldn't be surprised to see a higher offensive outcome, perhaps in the low .800's OPS range. I don't expect Maxwell's whiff rate to improve much, but I think that the 32% K rate may decline into the high 20% range, given normal regression.
I used Fangraphs' filter (based on age, BB rate, K rate, batting average, and ISO) to identify similar CF hitters in 2012, and it produced only one comparable: Curtis Granderson. Considering that Granderson is paid about $12.5 million more than Maxwell, I don't mind that result.
Maxwell, a RHB, has poor splits against RHPs. Given the sample size issues with most platoon splits, as well as his minor league data, I would expect some improvement in his platoon split. Given that Ankiel is a LHB and can play CF, Maxwell could share some of his playing time. However, given Luhnow's interest in seeing Maxwell as a full time player, I don't think we will see a strict platoon. Bo Porter says that he prefers match ups based on strike zone "hot and cold" zones. Perhaps we will see some CF platooning only for certain types of RHP match ups.
Combine the acquisition of Chris Carter and Nate Freiman with the waiver claim on Justin Maxwell and it appears that the Astros are collecting some hitters who can hit massive HRs. I am waiting to see Carter and Maxwell go back-to-back with long no doubt HRs.