Friday, January 28, 2011

Justin Maxwell, Kory Casto, and the English Common Law

A brief discussion of the English common law, as it pertains to Justin Maxwell, who was designated for assignment by the Nationals yesterday:

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, "The customs, beliefs, or needs of a primitive time establish a rule or formula. In the course of centuries the custom, belief, or necessity disappears, but the rule remains." This rule was the venerable common law, the body of case law developed over several centuries by judges in England. The rules of the English common law remain in effect (sort of) in the colonial states of America, such as Virginia, unless the people have decided that those rules are "repugnant." If so, the legislature passes a statute tossing aside the old common law rule, and a new body of case law emerges interpreting this new statute.

An example: Let's say you're a landlord. Your tenant owes you back rent. Can you distrain your tenant's chattel until you collect the debt? In other words, can you hold your tenant's flat-screen TV hostage until he pays up? Well, up until 1835 the common law would have said, "Yeah, that's cool." But that year the Virginia legislature passed a law saying, "Nope, you can't (and the TV probably sucks, so why bother?)." Apparently this practice caused other kinds of problems, so the legislature enacted a law saying only a sheriff could do this under a court order. Virginia's customs, beliefs, or needs changed, so its people acted to toss out the common law rule.

Well, Justin Maxwell was a remnant from the old English common law system -- back from the time when MLB owned the Washington Nationals. While Maxwell was enthusiatically received when he was drafted by the Nats back in 2005, the guys who drafted him and praised him -- the old "judges" of talent such as Jim Bowden and Dana Brown -- are long gone. The guys who replaced them, Rizzo & Co., gave it a shot with this old holdover. But yesterday, they (in effect) legislated him out of the organization. Maxwell, like many other holdovers from the MLB regime, was tossed out, just like the old common law when it becomes too archaic.

* * * * * * *

Maxwell's rise and fall in the Nats' eyes is a fairly representative blurb on this organization's early history in Washington. His story can be told more comprehensively and analytically elsewhere, but let's highlight a morsel of it here. Just as much as his story is a commentary on the period of MLB rule, it's also a commentary on the early stages of the Lerner/Kasten ownership group (the roll-out of "The Plan").

In a way, the Justin Maxwell Story can be subtitled "The Further Adventures of Kory Casto." If you're reading this blog, you remember Kory Casto. Because he was an early-round pick a couple years before the move to DC, and because he put up some good batting lines in the low minors, Casto was one of the few advanced position player prospects the Nationals had during the early "Plan" period. Casto was never a very good prospect, but the Kastenites had a way of puffing up his importance -- probably because, well, Casto was one of the few guys they could pump up at that point. At the time, I called this phenomenon the Kory Casto effect; see also Larry Broadway. Back then, Casto and Broadway were puffed up by the organization in large part because they were (somewhat) young and, given the team's stated direction, young talent equated with "excitement."

However, once Casto started getting some playing time in 2007-08, there developed a substantial disconnect between the organization's stated praise for him and his actual level of play. Put another way, Casto sucked. (As for Broadway, he never even reached the majors.) Not too soon thereafter, Casto was discarded. You could just as soon distrain your tenant's chattel for rent than you could see Casto meaningfully contribute to the Washington Nationals.

Maxwell is the same tune, different verse. He entered the organization as a something of a find, a "first-round talent" with an injury history pushing him a few rounds lower. But they kept saying he was a talent, and he continued to show glimpses of it. Yet he would get injured at inopportune times, and he had a hole in his swing the size of Montana. Given sporadic playing time last year, he drew some walks, but his batting performance was generally the worst damn thing I've seen from a Washington National, and that includes Joe Horgan in 2005. Maxwell is now 27, is out of option years, and, like Casto before him, has glimpsed the fullness of his time with the Nats.

* * * * * * *

Of course, it's best not to overstate things: every organization experiences prospect erosion and sees its talent turn over continually. Just because a team drafts or signs a young player does not mean the young player will become a centerpiece of the major league team (or even reach the majors, like Maxwell and Casto did). The overwhelming majority of draftees or signees make no big league impact at all. And it's not just organizational guys who end up being Rule 5 picks or minor league free agents; former prospects bounce around too. The odds were Maxwell and Casto would fail as big leaguers -- no matter that MLB drafted them, no matter how the Kasten crew touted them -- because those are the breaks of the game. There's no shame in trying.

And this is not to suggest that the organization has derived no continuing benefit from the prospects it inherited from MLB ownership. Ryan Zimmerman, of course, was drafted nearly a year before the Lerners were selected, and you could say he's worked out well so far. John Lannan, selected three rounds after Zimmerman, is no star but has been something of a diamond in the rough. The righthanded poor man's Lannan, Craig Stammen, was taken thirty picks later. Ian Desmond, a 2004 draftee who is now years removed from Bowden's rank hyperbole, began making an impact last season. Collin Balester, drafted one round after Desmond, might be gaining a toe-hold in the bullpen after a couple of false starts in the rotation. These guys have propped up the (so far) barren draft of 2006, which occurred during the ownership transition.

Then there's Roger Bernadina, who might be the next in the Maxwell/Casto line, or might not. Bernadina actually predates the MLB ownership era; I believe he was signed so long ago that Sir William Blackstone was the guy who signed him. At any rate, Bernadina turns 27 in June and is entering his make-or-break season. There's room for him to make an impression, but odds are he's not more than a role player.

* * * * * * *

Back to Maxwell for a second, and I promise this has nothing to do with the English common law. Back in October, Maxwell had Tommy John surgery. At the time, the organization anticipated him returning to full strength in February. I haven't really seen anything about his progress lately, but I'd guess there's a chance that the DFA means simply nothing more than that the Nats can pull him from the 40-man roster and slip him through waivers. If so, the Maxwell era continues, albeit less enthusiastically.

However, as often happens, when a team makes a player available to other teams, other teams' fans start imagining what that player could do for their teams. And so it goes with Maxwell -- I've seen fans from the Phillies, the A's, the O's, the Cubs, etc. hoping their team picks him up and gives him a shot. And, to be honest, I think Maxwell's worth another shot (with the Nats or with another organization). He's physically gifted, and his development as a player has been delayed to some extent. He could need another season or two to pull it all together. It doesn't happen often for a player Maxwell's age, but it does happen.


  • Fair commentary. I think we may finally see better prospects in the system.

    By Blogger Positively Half St., at 1/28/2011 1:57 PM  

  • Excellent... very well done.

    By Blogger Collin, at 1/29/2011 11:15 AM  

  • Chris, you're first 1,800 words on J-Maxx were correct: he's a stiff.
    The last 100 -- that he actually might meet his potential -- sounded like they didn't go through the StanSpeak Translator (RIP) correctly. You might want to run them through again.

    J-Maxx bottom line: lovely guy, would have him marry my daughters, great field, great baserunner, just a bad, bad hitter. In fact, calling J-Maxx a hitter is a vast leap of optimistic faith.

    I don't care about the slug we got in return, but we've just got to keep trading with the Yanks.

    By Anonymous Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me, at 2/02/2011 10:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home