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.

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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, 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.

Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Watch 8/5/10

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Game 108: McDonald Sharp in Bucs Debut

  • piratemike

    Even if he's good the rest of this year doesn't mean he will do it next year too, as we have seen in the past. Being a Pirate fan we have to knock on wood or cross our fingers every time we think we have a winner. Just think if McDonald is the real deal and we trade for a good pitcher in the off-season. We could start out next year with the makings of a decent rotation and BP………..Knock ……..Knock……..Knock.

  • Scott S

    Yes, we all remember Duke lighting it up in his rookie season or Karstens almost throwing a no-no in his debut. The nice thing thought is that McDonald has better stuff than either of them, which at least gives me hope he can sustain it over the long haul.

  • burgh_fan

    Its funny how everyone remembers something that did not happen. Not to pick on you Scott but you are one of many people who have said about Karstens near no-no debut. Funny thing his debut wasn't really that close to a no-no.

    On August 1, 2008 Karstens started his first game as a Pirates, his line:

    6 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 2 SO, 0 R, 0 ER

    6 shutout innings is a good start but no where near a no hitter. By the way he lost his no hit bid to the first batter of the third inning.

    • pirateswillwinin2011

      i think it was Kartstens 2nd or 3rd start that he took the No Hitter into the 7th or 8th?

    • Scott S

      Burgh fan, no offense and do not feel picked on.

      Indeed, I stand corrected. It was his second start with the Bucs when he went into the 8th inning with a perfect game bid and finished with a two hitter. –;_ylt=As3Rk

      That being said, the overall point was about early impressions: How they stir and excitement, yet also bring out the skeptics who have seen positive early impressions before from Pirates pitchers.

      BTW, color me an optomist when its comes to McDonald.

  • Paul Housley

    Dejan Kovacevic reports – there’s no chance that the team will take Deven Marrero.

    Mayo – #13

    BA – #13

    Law – #7

    “On the flip side, if Marrero can’t hit, then he doesn’t have much value,
    as no-bat, strong defensive shortstops can be found much cheaper than
    the cost of a first round pick.”

  • Steve Dimmick

    no way i would deal both cole and marte…perhaps cole and another higher prospect, but he’s really the only hitter they have until bell shows up that will impact the club very much….they got a bunch of good guys in WV, cole and one of them could do it, of course, maybe Presley would do it too?



    Nice write-up, but I disagree. I’d much rather have the service years of control in a season where the Pirates are likely to compete, as opposed to trading for Castro now and having the years of control during 2012 (in which they are not competing) and 2013 (in which they may or may not compete). I’ll trade 2017/2018 for 2012/2013 every time, especially knowing what we know about the 2012 and 2013 teams.

    I also think there is 0 chance Castro would resign with us after his service time is up. His walk rate also scares me.

  • Lee Young

    I am not a fan of Marrero, but if he can become another Jack Wilson, I would take him in a heartbeat. I miss Jack Flash.

  • Richard Ya’Zhynka

    If I were starting an expansion team and I were given the right to draft one major league player, it would be SS Troy Tulowitzki. Excellent defense and a .900 OPS at a position where most teams are lucky to get .700.

  • leadoff

    I think the SS position is a little down right now in Pittsburgh, but not critical enough to give away the farm for Castro, it is still a very strong position defensively on the major league level. They tried to get Alonso from the Reds over the winter, but had nothing to offer the Reds that would get him, that includes one of the best they have in the minor leagues right now. Barmes is the answer, he will hit enough for this team and if the Pirates are in contention in August or Sept. they will need a strong SS.
    As far as Castro is concerned, I am not sold on him yet, the Cubs seem to bring guys up and they go crazy for a while then they go away, guys like Soto, Barmol. IMO, Castro gets a lot of lucky hits, but he is very athletic.

  • john.alcorn

    I’m with you Tim, I think its more a case of overrating your own guys rather than any knock on Castro. An almost sure thing 4-5 win (or better, he’s just 22) SS for 4 1/2 years for almost any prospects would be a great deal for any team. Putting an elite player at the toughest position to fill is more than worth an extra two years of any pitching prospect. Cole and Taillon could be aces, the also could be shoulder surgeries, or control plagued mid rotation guys. Castro is already a top 5 SS in MLB and could get even better as he matures.

  • RAS TN

    Tim, Question in your opinion how does Marrero compare to Machado from a few years back….?

    • Tim Williams

      Machado has a much better bat, but seems like a pretty good bet to eventually move to third base.

  • Patrick Kelly

    Tim, I’m a bit shocked that you write this and not even mention Castro’s high BABIP (which with his speed I’m not as concerned with) and the fact that he walks about as much as Josh Harrison. His K rate is rising, his walk rate has gone from bad to horrible, and his BABIP is at a career high in the bigs. I also do not believe for a moment that he has been legitimately raise his UZR 20.3 points in the span of 1 season.

    Add in all of the question marks and there is no way I am giving up Cole and Marte for him. If you were to say Cole and a guy like Grossman, I would be more inclined to pull the trigger.

    • Tim Williams

      Castro’s BABIP by year:

      2010: .346
      2011: .344
      2012: .355

      Seems like a normal range. I’m not totally sold on his defense, as I’ve pointed out. But it’s rare to have his offense with strong defense. You usually either get one or the other. And his strikeout rate is at 15.7%, up from 13-14%. Hardly a concern. He doesn’t walk a lot, but he makes up for that by hitting for a high average.

  • Matt Beam

    Jed Lowrie, like most of the Astros, is supposedly available. He’s eligible for free agency after 2014. What might it take for the pirates to acquire him (assuming prospects) and would it make sense to you if a reasonable trade could be arranged?

    • Kevin_Creagh

      Right now, we’re working on an update of sorts to the Prospect Trade Surplus work of Victor Wang (should be out mid-June).

      If you believe Lowrie is a true 2.5 WAR (I’m a little skeptical), let’s put him at 7 WAR from now until the end of 2014. He’s arb eligible in 2013-14 and will probably make $3.5M and $5.5M in salaries those two years. $35M of WAR – $9M of contract = $26M

      In terms of a hitter, that’s one #11-25 hitter by BA’s Top 100. Or a Top 10 pitcher plus a #76-100. In that combination, that’s Cole and Marte. Or Taillon and Marte.

      As much as the Pirates need a quality SS, I wouldn’t give those two guys up for Lowrie. That shows you how valuable it is to develop your own SS.

      • Matt Beam

        Wow, was hoping it might be more like Marte and Owens so agree with you about not giving that up for 2.5 years

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