First Pitch: Keeping James McDonald Around Would Be the Right Move

The Pirates have a decision to make on James McDonald this week. - Photo by Mark Olson

The Pirates have a decision to make on James McDonald this week. – Photo by Mark Olson

James McDonald is set to return this week. There has already been a lot of discussion about whether McDonald should be on the 25-man roster. In yesterday’s article about Gerrit Cole there were a lot of comments about how McDonald should be gone to create a spot for Cole. The Pirates could keep both, so that shouldn’t be an issue.

A year ago today, McDonald had a 2.19 ERA in 90.1 innings with an 83:24 K/BB ratio. He had a horrible second half, and finished with a 4.21 ERA, which lined up exactly with his FIP and xFIP numbers. That was also the second straight year he put up a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings. I’m not sure if McDonald will return to that ERA again this year, although that would be weird.

With the way the current rotation is set up, there would be no need for McDonald as a starter, especially since he has struggled this year in the role. The Pirates will have Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Jeanmar Gomez when McDonald returns. The best bet would be to put him in the bullpen, and there would definitely be space, as Duke Welker and Ryan Reid both have options and can be sent to Triple-A.

A lot of people seem to be quick to just throw McDonald away, which is odd because it’s not like someone like Ryan Reid has more upside. McDonald is only a year removed from putting up some amazing numbers. That would be like if Jeff Locke struggled the rest of the year, struggled over 29 innings next year, then people started calling for him to be released. That’s not to say there haven’t been concerns with McDonald. It’s just saying that McDonald should be given more of a chance.

The Pirates don’t really need to make a decision on McDonald being on the roster until A.J. Burnett returns. That could be a few weeks, and if we assume that everyone else in the rotation remains healthy, that could create a situation where the Pirates have to decide between McDonald and Bryan Morris. That gives McDonald a few weeks to show that he can provide value in the majors.

There are concerns with McDonald. He’s struggled for most of the last 365 days. A year ago he had great numbers, but it was all downhill from there. His velocity has also gone downhill. In 2010 and 2011 he was close to 96 MPH for his maximum velocity on his fastball. His average velocity was around 92.5. In 2012 those numbers dropped to 95 and 91.8. This year he has seen a big drop. His maximum velocity has been 93.2 MPH, which is almost 2 MPH slower than last year, and 3 MPH slower than 2010-11. His average is 90.4, which is almost 1.5 MPH less than last year, and almost 2 MPH slower than the year before.

Those concerns expressed, there are some signs of hope that McDonald could provide value in the bullpen. First of all, he wouldn’t be the first starting pitcher who has struggled, moved to the bullpen, and had success. He also might benefit from working off a two pitch mix, going with his fastball and curveball. The curve has a career .161 BAA and has almost a 45% strikeout rate. If he went with a fastball/curveball combo, he could put up the dominating strikeout numbers you’d hope for out of a reliever. Also, if he only had to worry about 1-2 innings, he might settle down and cut back on his command issues, while also bringing more velocity.

The argument boils down to this:

McDonald has struggled for the last year and the Pirates can’t afford to keep struggling players on the roster while contending.

vs

McDonald has shown some great stuff in the past, and was putting up phenomenal numbers a year ago, and the Pirates can’t afford to let him go if he could provide value.

It’s not going to hurt to give McDonald a shot over the next few weeks. Considering the numbers he had a year ago, and the stuff we’ve seen from him in the past, it would be foolish to just give up on him. That’s not to say he should have a roster spot locked down the rest of the year. He’s still going to have to perform and earn the right to keep the spot. But until everyone in the rotation returns, he should have time to establish himself out of the bullpen, and show he can still provide value to the team.

Links and Notes

**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 10: More Stanton Talk and Should Polanco Be Called Up This Year?

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.

**Prospect Watch: Willy Garcia Has a Monster Day in a Monster Month.

**Minor League Schedule: Dickson Makes Second Start Tonight.

**Top Performers: Strong Debuts From Heredia, Pimentel, Dickson, and More.

**Top Performers: Danny Collins and Alen Hanson Lead the Pirates Hitters.

**Pirates Playoff Odds: Sweep Catapults Bucs Over 75 Percent.

**Minor Moves: Vic Black Activated From the Indianapolis DL.

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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  • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

    James is eligible for arbitration at the end of this year. Because of the number of starts he has made already in his career, he would be a lock to be awarded $3 or $4 million a year. Keeping him around as a long reliever to showcase him for a trade is not a practical option at this point. If they can get anything for him now, take it, otherwise, snip snip. He is not a valuable asset at this point.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      agree…

      • deacs

        Look, if you’re not going to pitch Ryan Reid anyway, why not send him down and give J Mac one last shot. Then when AJ comes back if McDonald is struggling then you cut him. J Mac has pissed me off to no end in the past and quite frankly I don’t think he’ll figure it out all the sudden in the next 4 weeks or when AJ comes back. But if you have any shot at getting the guy from the first half of last year you take it.

        • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

          I might agree with that normally, but have you seen his stats from the rehab assignment? Not exactly burning it up, and not making a lot of friends with the minor league management… Would much rather see Morton take that spot- he has some value.

          • deacs

            I hear you. His rehab stats haven’t been that good and there’s been subtle hints that his time is coming to an end. Even though Morton was putting up better numbers in his rehab stint you got every indication that he was going to be given a shot. I think their patience is wearing thin with James.

          • http://www.facebook.com/fred.langford.9 Fred Langford

            A lot of similarities between j-Mac and Ian snell for me. The temperamental stuff, the never pitching to their ability, and when things go bad they steamroll it seems. I would like to see them find a way to keep him but if they can’t I am ok with that also. Autocorrect changed snell to “smell” when I typed it and I almost left it thinking this is one time when ac got it right.

          • Cato the Elder

            That is a false dichotomy that you just made up, gwbicster. It is not a question of McDonald or Morton, it is a question of McDonald or Ryan Reid (or Bryan Morris).

            • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

              Not really. In my rose colored world, Cole stays in the rotation, and Morton is the long reliever.

    • https://profiles.google.com/113824087346904673399 Dom DiDominic

      Cut him now over what he could make next year? Cut a guy with his stuff over a Reid or Welker that have options left?
      If he throws two months of good relief, gets his numbers up he would be either a valuable asset the rest of the way or would fetch something on the trade market. Got to have more value than Brad Lincoln had a year ago.
      If JMac can get it going, I would much rather see him get the ball in game 2 v St.Louis than Cumpton.
      Give him three weeks with Ray, through the All-Star break, then DL him with ‘fatigue’ or something where he can reenter the AAA rotation for three three or four starts before ‘snip, snip’.

      • http://www.facebook.com/fred.langford.9 Fred Langford

        you are exactly correct Dom.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

      This is the exact crux of the matter, JMac already makes $3 million and it is very unlikely that he will be tendered as a reliever. They might us well just trade him now to a team that needs SP and will take the gamble on his upside.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.smalley.35 Andrew Smalley

    I’m more than fine w/ keeping McDonald – and sending Reid down – until everyone returns healthy. I haven’t seen anyone argue otherwise, though.

    The issue, as you state, is what happens to James when everyone is healthy. I’d be fine w/ sending Morris down, if McDonald shows some promise.

    But, he should be *nowhere* near the rotation. And, he shouldn’t be kept on the team if the alternative is sending Cole down, in my opinion. That, I believe, is where the disagreement is most prevalent.

  • HamburgBucco

    This could also be about team chemistry more than anything.
    I think I read somewhere that McDonald very much burned his bridges to the first team lst year when he refused to throw a retaliation pitch in a game where one of our players (I seem to remember it was Cutch) was HBP on purpose.

    When McDonald refused to do that, he immediately lost the respect of his teammates which would make it difficult to get him back just like that without settling this issue. I think we all know deep down that McDonald is still a very decent major league pitcher, but probably not for us because of the above mentioned issue.
    If nothing else he should be part of a package in a trade that should give us a fairly decent hitter to give us a bit of depth in that department.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

    I kind of feel like JMac is going to hurt the team. Although, if he goes to the bullpen that’s okay I guess.
    .
    To me it’s starting to appear like his 2012 first half was a fluke. His velocity is dropping and he’s still inconsistent with the curve command. He’s 28 now, when the Pirates acquired him, the thought was by now he would have command of his curve and by mid 2012 it looked like he was reaching his potential. That’s all gone now.
    .
    It would have been nice to see improvement in his rehab stint. In 5 minor league starts his bb/9 is still high and his k/9 is even worse. So when is he going to perform well enough to help a team win games? This year? Next? The year after? How long can a team trying to keep up with two of the best teams in baseball afford to wait?
    .
    IMO, JMac has played his way off the team. For me, that’s sad to see. I had high hopes for him and wanted him to succeed. I don’t think he can help this team however, now or for the remainder of his Pirates career (however long that may be).

  • johnj618

    Except irs not like, okay, he didn’t do good earlier but he went down for his rehab starts and did okay. He has a 6.53 era in AAA. He flat out does not deserve to be in the majors. Hes a detriment to the club. If you pitch him, he can lose you games. Why would anyone possibly want that. Hes not the future. We have a massive list of guys who are our future both bullpen and rotation. And this is a playoff race. I don’t agree with this move at all.

    • joe g.

      You make the move. Have him throw a couple of side sessions with Ray, then put him back on the DL with a sprained giblet or something. That’s all – no harm. Give him a few more “rehab” starts in AAA and see if he figures it out. If you dfa him, you lose him and get nothing in return.

      • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

        Lol, sprained Giblet. His rehab time is up this week, so he’d have to strain the other one.

  • joe g.

    Cut the cord NOW with JMac? No way. You don’t give away a player with his upside that can provide pitching depth and possible trade value. We actually got something for John McDonald. Why would we giveaway James McDonald?

    • buster09

      joe g : maybe you have seen him pitch during his rehab starts,but I have. And while I understand Tim’s thoughts on this, I don’t see any way that James becomes an assett at any time soon. If he were 22 years old,it might be worth the effort,but at 28 ? Keeping him around now is just delaying the inevitable.

      • Cato the Elder

        Buster, mayabe you never saw John McDonald play, but I have. And while I understand your thoughts on this, I could never have believed that John would become an asset. If he were 28 years old, it might have seemed worth the effort but at 39!?!

        28 year old SP who posted 2.19 ERA over 90.1 innings with an 83:24 K/BB ratio 1 year ago are every bit the asset that a 39 year old SS with a career BA of .233 who was hitting a staggering .053 on the season.

        A couple of good outings and James McDonald would become a valuable trade chip (and frankly, I’m not ever sure he needs the few good outings). He is young, he is affordable, and he has proven he is capable of being a good starting pitcher in the majors. Even if it is only a shot in the dark, some team somewhere would be happy to take it.

        • IC Bob

          If Jmac is a good trade chip then trade him immediately.

  • brilemon

    These are “high bottom problems” or to use current urban slang from Louis CK, “white people problems” to have… Last year and going into 2013, plenty of talk surrounding j Mac resembled the following: “in order for the pirates to succeed,we need james to do well…”
    Now james is a perceived weak link on a team that isn’t even getting led by cutch and Burnett into the break. Pinch me.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD

    So, given his poor performance over an extended period of time, along with the loss of velocity and control, and very recent poor performances in AA and AAA, we now believe he will suddenly find himself and contribute to the Pirates?

    How many games does he cost the Pirates before they let him go?

    I still cannot believe someone said he would be okay with sending Morris down to make room for MacDonald!!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      I would not trust handing the ball to JMac in ANY situation. Unless it was a 10-0 blowout we were losing.

      DFA/Trade him for whatever you can get!

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD

        I agree with you Lee 100%

  • IC Bob

    Its time for this team to transition from a team building for the future to a team playing for the present. Keeping a guy because of potential is OK when your in last trying to climb the mountain. This team is on top of the mountain and its time to play the best and to reward the best. I am not saying we release him I am saying lets make a trade. We will not get much but he isn’t worth much. If the Bucs want he will be available in the off season because nobody is going to pay the arbitration price he will bring.

  • beatembucs222

    I can’t help but think that JMac is going to become our next Jose Bautista. Anyone else get that feeling?

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      no! :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/fred.langford.9 Fred Langford

      No. J-Mac can’t hit that well.

  • scbucsfan

    He is not the Jmac of the past without his velocity. If he can gain his velocity then he could be useful. Speaking of gaining back Velocity, anyone seeing what Oliver Perez is doing this year?

  • jon6er

    Which situation do they try him in? Down by 5, up by 5 or in a tight ballgame. I really wouldn’t like to see him starting off in high leverage situations out of the pen.

  • IC Bob

    Maybe we bring him back for a day and maybe he will feel some discomfort in his shoulder and we will have to put him on the DL again. Then in a week he can pitch some more down in Bradenton.

  • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

    You make a very important point that a lot of people miss: there is no need to make a decision NOW, and frequently, deciding to not do anything is the best decision. Fans are like, “You have to trade him and if you can’t trade him DFA him!” But there’s no need to make a decision yet, and three weeks from now, we’ll have more information.

    Maybe he shows something in the bullpen. Maybe someone else gets hurt. Maybe Searage sees something in his mechanics. The bottom line is, there’s no urgency yet. Let’s wait and see.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      I have read that they need to make a decision by today. I have no problem with Reid going down.
      .
      I do have a problem with JMac ever pitching for us again.
      .
      Foo

  • Monkshot

    After some thought, I think James should be given a chance in the bullpen by sending down Reid. Just as long as Cole stays with the club, he deserves to stay and pitch every 5 days. That way the Pirates would give James the opportunity to show if he has anything left, and depending on the outcome, can decide accordingly. Personally, I think it’s delaying the inevitable but stranger things have happened.

    • Cato the Elder

      Cole and McDonald have very little to do with each other. If/when Cole is sent down, it will have very little to do with James McDonald.

    • johnj618

      This is ridiculous. Has Ryan Reid pitched a lot in the majors? No. But he does have a 1.5 era and a 0.52, yes 0.52 era in AAA. McDonald does not deserve his spot. This is a team competing. Why can’t people comprehend that?

      • joe g.

        He has a 1.5 era in SIX innings pitched.

        • Y2JGQ2

          Joe- missing the point. Compare McDonald’s numbers (who already is used to relief pitching) to McDonald’s (who has trouble in his first inning very commonly) and also compare the rehab numbers in the minors for mcdonald vs. what reid did in AAA. There is no way you can spin it that Reid isn’t a better fit and hasn’t earned the job over McDonald.

  • leadoff

    The Cubs gave up on Marmol today, maybe we should do the with McDonald, he did pitch briefly out of the pen for the Pirates last year and that was a disaster.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD

      And, IMHO, Marmol has much more upside and value than MacDonald at this point in their careers. I think Marmol just needs to get out of Chicago….

  • IC Bob

    Now we know the answer. he is off to see Dr Andrews and then it will be another rehab in a couple of weeks. We can revisit this chat in 6 weeks or if the Bucs are clever they will draw it out so Mcdonald comes back in September. Then again he may get the knife from Dr Andrews and that will be that.

  • Y2JGQ2

    Tim- On any of the Pirate teams of the last 20 years I’d agree. However with his loss of velocity, he reminds me of a much worse version of Tim Lincecum. With the loss of velocity comes added pressure to aim, which comes with more walks, longer innings, more pressure on each pitch, more pressure on the arm, more pressure to overthrow every pitch. He’s struggling in AA ball. You can’t just all of a sudden make him a relief pitcher, something he’s never done, and expect him to be better. Its a mental thing, he doesn’t WANT to. And if he doesn’t want to, you have Ian Snell, and in my opinion, a less talented version of Ian Snell considering the velocity dropoff. At this point, we are a better team with the players we have, than sending someone down and letting him pitch. This is a playoff run and he doesn’t bring anything we don’t have a bunch of at this point. Trade time, get what you can, and say see ya later