JAMES McDONALD
RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
  Born: October 19, 1984
Height: 6′ 5″
Weight: 195
Bats: Left
Throws: Right
Drafted: 11th Round, 331st overall, 2002
College: Golden West (CA) CC
How Acquired: Trade (for Octavio Dotel)
Agent: Hendricks Brothers

WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES

The Pirates acquired McDonald and OF Andrew Lambo from the Dodgers for RHP Octavio Dotel at the 2010 trade deadline.  It was a trade of a veteran, good-but-not-outstanding reliever for two top prospects, both of whom had fallen out of favor with Dodgers management.  Although Lambo hit a wall in AAA in 2011, the trade looks like a significant success based on McDonald’s progress so far.  He throws a fastball, curve and change.  His primary difficulty has been inconsistent mechanics and command.  As a starter, his fastball is generally around 92-93, topping out at 95-96.  His out pitch is the curve, a strong swing-and-miss pitch when he gets it at least close to the strike zone.  His changeup could stand to improve.  He didn’t have a meaningful platoon split in the majors prior to 2011.  Although he was a two-way player in school, he hasn’t shown any hitting ability at all as a pro.  He holds runners fairly well.

2003
R:  2-4-0, 3.33 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 48.2 IP, 2.8 BB/9, 8.7 K/9 

McDonald signed as draft-and-follow and had a good debut in the GCL, with very good peripherals.

2004
R:  224/291/256, 125 AB, 2 2B, 1 3B, 12 BB, 44 K, 3-5 SB 

Developed arm trouble but, rather than have him do nothing, the Dodgers had him play the outfield.

2005
R+:  0-0-0, 1.50 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 6 IP, 3.0 BB/9, 15.5 K/9 

Continued playing the outfield for part of the year, but eventually returned to the mound in advanced rookie ball.

2006
A:  5-10-0, 3.98 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 142.1 IP, 4.1 BB/9, 9.2 K/9

Pitched well in low A.  Opponents hit only .227 against him and he fanned a lot, but he had some trouble with walks.

2007
A+:  6-7-0, 3.95 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 82 IP, 2.3 BB/9, 11.4 K/9
AA:  7-2-0, 1.71 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 52.2 IP, 2.7 BB/9, 10.9 K/9 

Split the season between high A and AA, actually posting a much better ERA at the higher level.  This probably was partly a result of moving from the hitting-crazy California League to the Southern League, which is a slight pitchers’ league.  McDonald’s peripherals were outstanding at both levels.

2008
AA:  5-3-0, 3.19 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 122.2 IP, 3.5 BB/9, 8.6 K/9
AAA:  2-1-0, 3.63 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 22.1 IP, 2.8 BB/9, 11.3 K/9
MLB:  0-0-0, 0.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 6 IP, 1.5 BB/9, 3.0 K/9 

Rated the Dodgers’ 7th best prospect before the season, McDonald spent most of the year in AA.  His BB/9 (3.5) and K/9 (8.6) were good, but not as spectacular as 2007.  He moved up to AAA for five games and fanned 28 in 22.1 IP.  He also made four relief appearances in the majors.  BA rated him the team’s second best prospect after the season.

2009
AAA:  1-0-0, 3.26 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 30.1 IP, 4.2 BB/9, 11.9 K/9
MLB:  5-5-0, 4.00 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 63 IP, 4.9 BB/9, 7.7 K/9 

Spent most of the year in majors.  He struggled after opening the season as a starter.  He had an 8.78 ERA in four starts, mainly because he walked 14 in 13.1 IP.  After a few relief appearances the Dodgers sent him to AAA, where he fanned a lot of batters over six starts.  After returning to the majors he pitched the rest of the year out of the bullpen, posting an ERA of 2.72 and WHIP of 1.37 in that role, striking out 8.7 per nine innings.  His velocity was better as a reliever, averaging around 95 in some games.

2010
R (LAD):  0-0-0, 1.59 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 5.2 IP, 4.8 BB/9, 12.7 K/9
AAA (LAD):  6-1-0, 4.41 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 63.1 IP, 3.4 BB/9, 8.1 K/9
MLB (LAD):  0-1-0, 8.22 ERA, 2.09 WHIP, 7.2 IP, 5.9 BB/9, 8.2 K/9
MLB (Pgh):  4-5-0, 3.52 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 64 IP, 3.4 BB/9, 8.6 K/9 

Despite his success as a reliever in 2009, McDonald didn’t make the Dodgers’ staff out of spring training.  Instead, the Dodgers opened the season with washed-up veterans like Ramon Ortiz, Russ Ortiz and Jeff Weaver in their bullpen.  McDonald’s inability to make it in LA, as a starter or reliever, probably had less to do with ability than with the presence of veteran-fetishist GM Ned Colletti and the hiring of manager Joe Torre, who had little success with, or use for, rookie pitchers in New York.  He didn’t pitch as well in AAA in a dozen starts.  He also missed time after suffering a hamstring strain running the bases in early June.  He returned to LA in July, struggling in one start and three relief appearances.  The Dodgers evidently ran out of the little patience they had and sent him to the Pirates along with Lambo, who’d fallen out of favor due to a drug suspension.  The Pirates immediately added McDonald to the rotation and he made a big first impression.  In his first game, he fanned the first four hitters he faced and six of the first seven, and threw six shutout innings.  His outings were more uneven after that.  He showed excellent, swing-and-miss stuff, but often struggled to throw strikes.  That led to high pitch counts and earlier-than-ideal exits.  In September he began to pitch more efficiently and last longer.  He had back-to-back shutout starts of seven and eight innings, and posted a 1.80 ERA in his last five starts.  He had only a slight platoon split and was a strong flyball pitcher, with a 46.3% flyball rate, but he allowed only 0.42 HRs per nine innings.

2011
MLB:  9-9-0, 4.21 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 171 IP, 4.1 BB/9, 7.5 K/9 

McDonald spent the year in the Pirates’ rotation.  He missed much of spring training with arm soreness, but the Pirates had him start the season in the majors anyway.  He obviously wasn’t ready and struggled badly through his first four starts, with an ERA of 10.13.  After that, his ERA was 3.49.  He continued to suffer bouts of wildness and ran up some high pitch counts, with the result that he went seven innings in only two starts and never topped seven and a third.  His walk and K rates both regressed a little from 2010, and he had gopher ball problems, allowing 24 in 171 innings.  He also allowed too many baserunners for a pitcher with his stuff.  Improving his changeup would probably help a lot, as left-handed hitters posted an OPS of .875 against him, compared to .716 by right-handed hitters.

2012
MLB:  12-8-0, 4.21 ERA, 1.26 ERA, 171.0 IP, 3.6 BB/9, 7.9 K/9

McDonald had what amounted to two separate seasons.  Through July 7, he was one of the NL’s best pitchers, going 9-3, 2.37.  After that point, he was one of the worst, going 3-5, 7.52.  The Pirates removed him from the rotation in mid-September.  He made one relief appearance and allowed three runs without retiring a batter.  The main issue seemed to be a loss of command.  After walking just 31 batters in his first 110 innings, he walked 38 in his last 61.  It’s possible he ran out of gas.  In 2011, he topped 100 pitches just seven times.  In 2012, he did so 14 times, including his last five starts and eight of his last nine before the rough streak started.  His velocity was down slightly late in the year.  On the year as a whole it was down about one mph from 2011, but he still got more swings and misses, and improved his K rate.  Some of this was probably due to the slider he started throwing for the first time, which seemed to be a key to his early season success.  He mostly stopped throwing his change, but it didn’t hurt him against left-handed batters.  He had a reverse platoon split, holding lefties to a .653 OPS while right-handed batters had a .780 OPS against him.  He was far better at home, posting a 2.73 ERA at PNC Park and 5.95 on the road.  It’s odd that his ERA was exactly the same as in 2011, because he allowed far fewer baserunners, reduced his opponents’ average from .268 to .233, and allowed slightly fewer HRs.  This appears to have been good luck in 2011 rather than bad luck in 2012, because his FIP and xFIP in 2012 were exactly the same as his ERA, while both were higher in 2011.

The Pirates stated that McDonald was not a lock for the 2013 rotation, but there was never much doubt he would be in it.  He had an adequate, but erratic, spring.  McDonald has shown enough ability that it’s worth the team’s while to give him a fairly long leash.  He was eligible for arbitration, but he settled with the Pirates before his hearing.

UPDATE:  McDonald struggled through six starts, showing neither the stuff he had in the first half of 2012 nor any ability to throw strikes.  The Pirates put him on the disabled list in early May with right shoulder discomfort.  They sent him on a rehab assignment for nearly a month starting in late May and he made no progress, so they shut him down again.  In mid-August they sent him on another rehab assignment and he continued to struggle, even against GCL hitters.  Once the AAA season ended, the team designated McDonald for assignment.  He cleared waivers and was outrighted to AAA.  Due to his service time, he has the right to elect free agency after the season, which he’ll undoubtedly do.

STATS
Baseball Reference–Majors
Baseball Reference–Minors
Fangraphs
MLB.com
MiLB.com
CONTRACT INFORMATION
2013: $3,025,000 (avoided arbitration)
2012:
$502,500
2011:
 $443,000
2010: Major League Minimum
2009: $400,750
PLAYER INFORMATION
Signing Bonus: $150,000
MiLB Debut: 2003
MLB Debut: 9/17/2008
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible:
2015
Rule 5 Eligible: Protected
Added to 40-Man:
11/20/2008
Options Remaining: 0 (USED: 2008, 2009, 2010)
MLB Service Time: 3.080
TRANSACTIONS
June 4, 2002: Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 11th round, 331st overall pick; signed as a draft-and-follow on May 26, 2003.
November 20, 2007:
Contract purchased by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
July 31, 2010: Acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Los Angeles Dodgers along with Andrew Lambo in exchange for Octavio Dotel and $500,000.
September 7, 2013: Designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates; outrighted to AAA on September 12.