LAKELAND, Fla. -- His smiling face appears on billboards around town, as well as on the cover of the Astros' 2013 media guide. Those are the kinds of honors usually reserved for bona fide stars, the All-Stars who have achieved a certain status in team hierarchy.
Justin Maxwell hasn't reached that point in his career, but the rebuilding Astros are hoping that one day he will. They're hoping he'll continue to be a face of the franchise and become a pillar of production, consistency and character for the young players beginning to trickle into Houston.
Maxwell could never have imagined he'd be in this position a year ago, when he was in camp with the Yankees and trying to just make that club. He was one of the final cuts of camp, and the Astros snatched him up off waivers on April 8.
"Going into last Spring Training with New York, I wasn't sure what my chances were of making the team, and to have the Astros give me an opportunity this year to be an everyday center fielder and have the chance to lead this team in the future, I couldn't ask for anything more," Maxwell said. "I had never played in Houston before, and now I get to play in one of the best ballparks in the league."
Maxwell, 29, made the most of his opportunity, playing in a career-high 124 games and leading the team with 18 homers -- many of them tape-measure shots -- in only 315 at-bats, while driving in 53. He started at every spot in the outfield, but by the end of the season was entrenched as the starter in center.
"He's a key piece of our team going forward," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "He contributed very much to a lot of things that were happening on the field at the end of last year, when we were having success. He's going to be an important part of our team this year and in the foreseeable future.
"He's not only a great player on the field, he's a good role model in the clubhouse, on and off the field, and pretty much exactly how we want players in the organization to behave and the example we want them to set."
Maxwell, who attended Maryland and was raised by military parents, is exactly the kind of player the Astros need to help mold their promising up-and-comers. He's a professional, and he plays the game hard between the lines.
"Usually I'm a guy that leads by example," he said. "I definitely would like to take more of a vocal role when necessary this year, and I understand the plan the Astros have and what [manager] Bo [Porter] expects from us as a team. Any time I see us slipping up or relaxing, I'll be sure to say something."
Porter, in his first season as manager, is counting on such players as Maxwell to help set the tone in the clubhouse.
"Bo just stresses [that] our identity as a team is going to be how we run the bases," Maxwell said. "Just to see the younger guys in their first big league camp go from first to third base right in the outfielder's face and take chances stealing bases, it says a lot that everybody is understanding what we're trying to portray as a team."
Maxwell suffered through the majority of the Astros' 107 losses a year ago, but he says that the hardships will only help the club in the long term.
"All the guys we brought back who went through the struggles and the learning opportunity we had last year, everyone is going to grow from that experience," he said. "My favorite quote from my college coach is, 'Tough times don't last, but tough people do.' Just to see all the hard work that all the guys have put in that were on the team last year and all the changes that they've made for the better, it's really good to see.
"I think the more you play in the big leagues, the more comfortable and more prepared you're going to get for situations that come up in the game and the less likely to be surprised you're going to be. It's nice to see all the younger guys trying to take advantage of those chances to better themselves."
Maxwell was as disappointed as any of his teammates by the Astros' performance last year, but the chance to play every day is something he cherished. The chance to be one of the leaders of the franchise is a dream come true.
"When you think about all the great players in the game, they were consistent in their careers, and that's what sets them apart," he said. "I'm trying to find some consistency both at the plate and defensively."