There were a lot of young players traded over the past few weeks, but one of the most interesting names was James McDonald, who was traded as part of the deal that sent Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers (click here for more on the trade).  McDonald was not only considered one of the Dodgers best prospects heading into 2009, but Baseball America ranked him as the 56th best prospect in all of baseball.

At the time they were very positive about his stuff, though they also said:

“McDonald’s fastball is very straight, and when he pitches as a starter it has fringy velocity at 87-91 mph. However, his secondary pitches help compensate for his fastball’s shortcomings. His curveball can be inconsistent at times.”

That would make it seem like maybe he is better suited out of the bullpen, which is where he has spent the majority of his time as a Major Leaguer (48 out of 53 appearances).  It also is where some people believe he belongs long-term.  His fastball has averaged 92.7 mph, so maybe there is some credence to that.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore his minor league success.  Heading into 2010, he had posted a 3.40 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 455.0 innings.  Couple that with a K/9 of 10.0 and a BB/9 of 3.4, and there is a lot to like.

That success also came in the Pacific Coast League, though not in huge sample sizes:

  • 2008 – 22.1 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
  • 2009 – 30.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 11.9 K/9, 4.2 BB/9

This season has been a different story.  He posted a 4.41 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.  The strikeouts are down, at 8.1 K/9.  The walks are fairly steady, with a BB/9 of 3.4.

What has really changes is his luck.  Prior to 2010, he had enjoyed a believable .301 BABIP overall.  This season he is at .332.  That certainly helps explain his drop in production.  While it doesn’t explain the strikeouts, it’s hard to imagine that he’s simply lost his ability to generate swings and misses.

I wouldn’t say we should expect him to be a 10 strikeout guy in the Major Leagues, but there’s no reason to think that he can’t be a 7.5-8.0 K/9 pitcher if he gets a spot in the rotation.

That alone makes him worth monitoring, because potential strikeout options don’t simply grow on trees.  They are hard to find at this time of year, so when one appears, there’s no reason not to stash him on your bench if you have an open spot, and see what happens.

He’s likely to struggle at times, as he really hasn’t been given a fair shake in a Major League rotation.  He’s certainly not going to be a must use option.  However, the potential is there.  He has the track record, including at the highest levels, to make you think that maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch lightning in a bottle.

Don’t plan on using him every time out, but stash him away in deeper formats and hope for the best.  He’s going to start in the Pirates bullpen, but it’s hard to imagine him not getting a shot soon.

What are your thoughts on McDonald?  Could he prove usable?

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