By R.J. Anderson //
James McDonald’s career has been anything but usual. Originally positioned as an outfielder, McDonald was converted to pitching during the 2006 season. He made his major league debut two years later in a relief capacity. Entering the 2009 season, the Dodgers deployed McDonald to the rotation, but quickly pulled the plug after four so-so efforts.
Most of the narrative about McDonald’s 2010 season rests in the minors. He made four appearances for the Blue Crew with one start before Ned Colletti shipped him to the Pirates along with another prospect for Octavio Dotel. The Dodgers still had illusions of postseason berth and yet the consensus at the time was something along the lines of, “That’s a bit too much for a reliever.” The consensus seven starts into McDonald’s career is now, “That was way too much for a reliever.”
McDonald’s performance is more responsible for the attitude shift than Dotel’s – although worsened peripherals have lead to an improved ERA – as the 25-year-old lanky righty has adapted well to the new environment. The Pirates have a reputation for their inability to develop power – read: strikeout – pitchers. McDonald may not possess a great American fastball, but he makes up for it with a freedom ringing curve and glistening change. Both of which have whiff rates over 13% since McDonald has began to don the black and yellow. Observe the portrait of a good McDonald start (i.e. mixing locations and keeping his offspeed stuff down):
With all of this hype, McDonald’s 4.17 ERA looks unsavory, even sour. Where’s the fire with this smoke? The peripherals are ablaze; his FIP is 2.63 and his xFIP – which corrects his unsustainably low home run rate – is at 3.92. If he’s not giving up home runs, limiting his walks, and striking out most of the population, then how are teams scoring? Easy: the Pirates’ porous defense. That’s not just porous as in holey, but porous as in: the pitching staff is left saying, “Poor us.”
Neal Huntington and the rest of the Buccos’ front office is top notch – no, really – and fixing the defense should be the primary objective this offseason. It would certainly be hard to downgrade the leather. With that in mind, McDonald makes for an interesting case. Given the division and pitcher friendly ballpark, as well as extremely low costs, McDonald might be worth keeping in deeper National League only leagues, or at worst placing him on the watch list for next season.