The Potential of James McDonald

I was driving up to Pittsburgh today with my dad, planning on going to the game tomorrow, but getting up here early enough to visit family tomorrow morning and afternoon.  We were about three hours away, and I was filling him in on some of the trades, since he was out of the country last week for the trade deadline.

Somewhere between discussing the trades, and recapping how much Primanti Brothers, Snyder’s chips, and diet Barqs root beer we needed to bring back for the wives (as none of these things can be found in Virginia), a thought hit us: why not go to the game tonight?  We were already going to Pittsburgh.  We were on pace to get to PNC Park for the start of the game.  And James McDonald has been one of my favorite prospects for the last three years, so how could I pass up a chance to see him make his first start?

Last week I was getting off the interstate in Richmond, about to turn in to the stadium right at the trade deadline, listening to MLB on XM recapping the trades.  They had mentioned that Octavio Dotel had been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, with no mention on the return.  Right as I was pulling in to the stadium parking lot, they announced that Dotel had been traded for McDonald.  A loud cheer erupted from my car.

When the Dodgers were interested in Jack Wilson in the Summer of 2008, I was saying the Pirates should try to get McDonald.  When the Jason Bay rumors were circulating, I was hoping that McDonald would be in the deal.  When the Wilson rumors returned in the 2008 off-season, I returned with the focus on McDonald.  And when the Pirates landed McDonald for Dotel, I didn’t even care that they also received Andrew Lambo, making the deal much better.

In my recap of the trade, I had this analysis of McDonald:

With the deal, the Pirates get a potential top of the rotation starter in McDonald, although his ceiling is probably a number two starter at this point. Lambo adds to their outfield depth, and could push for the final long term outfield spot along side Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata.

The “top of the rotation starter” and “number two” comment might have seemed a little lofty to some, but consider this.  McDonald was one of the top prospects in baseball prior to the 2009 season.  He has a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, and excellent strikeout numbers at the AAA level.  In 2009 he pitched 63 innings with the Dodgers, with a 4.00 ERA, a 7.7 K/9, a 4.9 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9.

McDonald began the 2009 season as a starter in the Dodgers’ rotation at the age of 24, but after four starts in five outings, he had an 8.16 ERA.  He moved to the bullpen, where he pitched 48.2 innings, with a 2.77 ERA, and a 48:20 K/BB ratio the remainder of the season.  McDonald only pitched 7.2 innings this year with the Dodgers, and didn’t fare well in one start and three relief outings.  His ERA in AAA was 4.41 this year in 63.1 innings, although his secondary numbers looked good, with an 8.1 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9.

So why did everyone jump off the bandwagon?  Is it because McDonald didn’t come up and light the world on fire right away in April 2009?  Is it because McDonald didn’t appear on any 2010 prospect lists because he doesn’t qualify as a prospect due to too many major league innings?

McDonald was one of the top prospects in baseball.  He came up with the Dodgers at the age of 24 and struggled in four starts.  He was then moved to the bullpen, where he had a ton of success.  He briefly struggled this year in the majors, although that was in 7.2 innings.  I don’t think anyone is crowning McDonald as an ace after six strong innings tonight, so I see no reason to take the opposite approach and call him a bust over 7.2 innings with the Dodgers.

It seems the knock on McDonald is that he struggled as a starter, but had success as a reliever, which probably created the theory that he could only cut it as a reliever.  The thing is, he hasn’t even been tested as a starter.  Prior to tonight, he had only made five starts in the majors.  You don’t evaluate a starting pitching prospect off of five starts.  Don’t get me wrong here.  Tonight’s start was great, but that doesn’t mean you evaluate McDonald after six starts either.

Tonight was fun to watch.  I’m a big fan of pitchers, and the Pirates haven’t had many good ones through the years.  Tonight reminded me of the 2004 season when my roommates and I would drive up to Pittsburgh for a day trip just to see Oliver Perez pitch.  It was great seeing a Pirates pitcher mowing down the opposition, even if there’s a chance that it might only be a one time deal.

So am I saying that I was right, and McDonald is a top of the rotation starter?  No.  Good or bad, I don’t believe a pitcher should be evaluated on a small amount of outings.  Look at Brad Lincoln.  He had a four bad starts, pitched a gem in his fifth start, then went back to struggling, and even that’s not enough to write him off.  What I am saying is that McDonald could be a top of the rotation starter, and tonight is a prime example why.

Tonight didn’t prove that McDonald is a top of the rotation starter.  It didn’t guarantee any future success.  What tonight did do was display McDonald’s potential.  Baseball’s history is full of talented pitchers who either had the potential and didn’t display it at all in the majors, or had the potential and only showed flashes.  McDonald showed a flash of his potential tonight.  For that reason, tonight’s start proved that the book shouldn’t be closed on McDonald.  He should still be viewed with the same potential as when he was a top prospect prior to the 2009 season.  Tonight’s start was a flash of the potential McDonald has.  The big story will begin with the next start: how often will we see that potential play out in the majors?  Ultimately, that will determine the book on McDonald, and we are a long way away from that book being completed.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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