The Oakland A’s drafted Bruce Maxwell in the second round of the 2012 draft and then spent the next few seasons converting the first baseman to catcher. Maxwell took to it well and made his major league debut in 2016, appearing in 33 games and hitting for a perfectly respectable 102 wRC+ in 101 plate appearances. To spare all-star Steven Vogt from potential injury, the A’s made Maxwell their regular catcher in 2017, and this is where the Bruce Maxwell story stops becoming about baseball.
Baseball fans likely know Maxwell for two events in 2017. The first was Maxwell protesting racism and social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem during a game against the Rangers in September, becoming the first major league player to do so. The second was his arrest for assault with a deadly weapon a month later, a charge for which he reached a plea deal in April of 2018. The A’s designated him for assignment in September of 2018 as a result of his poor performance, putting his professional baseball future in jeopardy. He entered free agency that offseason but didn’t sign a major league deal, instead playing in Mexico for the 2019 season and electing to sit out the 2020 season.
Whether fair or not, any conversation about Maxwell joining the major league roster will likely come with questions about his potential impact on the team’s public relations. Maxwell is not only the most predominant Black catcher in the league but also the highest-profile protester of racial injustice in the sport, a distinction that a league executive believes made him too toxic to sign in 2019. Coupled with a disastrous 38 wRC+ in 18 games in his final season in Oakland, it’s easy to see why he hasn’t stepped on a major league field since 2018.
And if Maxwell played anywhere but catcher, he might have never been given a chance again. But considering that the catching pool is so barren that the Mets gave their largest free agent contract this offseason to a player who spent his last season as a backup on the White Sox’s depth chart, it makes sense that Maxwell still has a shot to make the team.
Maxwell is a non-roster invitee with four catchers standing ahead of him on the depth chart. With James McCann slotted as the starter, and Ali Sanchez picked up by the Cardinals, Maxwell’s hope to make the majors rests pretty mightily on Tomás Nido. In four seasons as a backup catcher, Nido’s only real stretch of competence came last season, where he batted for a massive 149 wRC+, albeit in just 26 plate appearances over 7 games. Nido is also a plus-defender according to Baseball Reference’s catcher defensive adjustment, while Maxwell recorded negative value in all three of his major league seasons. Nido’s offense will likely regress from his magical 2020 output, but if it doesn’t regress too far, his age and defensive capabilities make him a vastly better choice to back up McCann than Maxwell.
Up until recently, having Nido and career minor-leaguer Patrick Mazeika in the way made Maxwell’s path to the majors difficult but non unseeable. But with the recent signing of veteran catcher Caleb Joseph, Maxwell doesn’t have much of a chance barring catastrophic injuries from multiple players. Joseph has been in the league much longer than Maxwell has and has put up similar numbers offensively while not being a liability defensively. Maxwell may be five years younger than Joseph, but at 30 he’s likely too old to show any improvement over his past production. If he can outperform Mazeika and Joseph in the spring, the Mets don’t have much reason not to keep him as a third catching option in Syracuse, though that still likely doesn’t put him on the major league club for the start of the season. It’s not a lot for Maxwell to hope for, but it’s not nothing.
It won’t be surprising if Maxwell never sees playing time for the Mets, as the team has a pretty clear strategy of starting McCann and hoping super-prospect Francisco Álvarez is ready for the majors when McCann’s contract expires. But as long as the Mets require more than two players to fill the position in 2020, Maxwell has a chance.