James McDonald had a brilliant outing with six innings of shutout ball in his first appearance with the Pittsburgh Pirates. This caused one reader of my previous piece to fear that it might be a fluke. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up yet,” he wrote resignedly.

And his remark carried a point: Just because McDonald put up a Cy Young-caliber showing in his debut outing doesn’t mean that he will be the next Cy Young candidate.

But it’s not devoid of meaning, either, because the Pirates have already gotten more than they could reasonably expect.

The remainder of the “resignation” was more topical: “Does anyone remember Karstens?” (who did the same in his Pirates debut). He didn’t exactly live up to his early billing, but he wasn’t a bust, either.

Karstens does pitch that well–occasionally–which is to say that he has the “stuff.” He just doesn’t seem to have the endurance to maintain that kind of performance over a whole season of 30 or so starts. This lack of endurance took him to the back of the Pirates’ rotation, and at times to the bullpen.

McDonald strikes me as a harder thrower than Karstens, and a tougher prospect all around. If so, he might be better than Karstens, say middle of rotation (or better).  A look at his (admittedly brief) record shows why this might be so.

Here’s what we do know: that he can pitch for six innings (or more) at a time while giving up no (or few) runs, at least against a middling team like the Colorado Rockies. That’s his ceiling so far.

We don’t even know that about Dan McCutchen, who hasn’t done this yet. We barely know this about Brad Lincoln, who did pitch one seven inning shutout, but a bunch of other mediocre (or worse) starts, including an unimpressive debut.

As such, McDonald is now a better candidate for “fifth starter” than Lincoln or McCutchen, and at least as good as Karstens was.

McDonald pitched one other start, of five innings, four runs, for the Los Angeles Dodgers, suggesting that (unlike Karstens) he has reasonable durability, even if he isn’t always on the mark. Taking the average of his two outings might represent his base.

If that’s the case, he might during the course of the next season produce 15 quality starts, of six innings, three or fewer runs (most of them not shutouts), and 15 lesser starts. That might mean that his current ERA of 4.61 could be representative of his current ability (mid-rotation).

If he could improve over time to 20 quality starts (out of 30), that would put him in the category of an above average pitcher, say Zach Duke in his best full year (2009), or Paul Maholm in 2008, which would mean second starter caliber, on a team other than the Pirates.

Here’s why it’s so hard to make the Cy Young: In order to do so, a pitcher must have ten or so great starts during a season, like Thursday night, not just two or three, like Jeff Karstens or other Pirates’ pitchers.

There must be ten or more starts of lesser but still quality caliber, some of which go for seven or eight, rather than six, innings. (If a pitcher pitches a six-inning three run quality start, then gives up a fourth run in the seventh, the quality start is cancelled.)

With exception of the occasional bad game, the remaining starts would be just shy of “quality,” say two or three runs in five innings, or four runs in six or seven.

That gets one to the level of an also-ran named Chien Ming Wang (in his best years in 2006 and 2007). A Roy Halladay will do better most nights; a seven inning two run start is “below average” for him.

A team doesn’t normally get this much starter, or any starter for that matter, by trading a 36-year old reliever, even a closer. “Average expectations” in the recent deal (for McDonald and Andrew Lambo) might be one middle inning (worst caliber) reliever or one utility position player.

But in 2002, the Cleveland Indians traded Bartolo Colon, an admitted ace, for Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore (attributing the other two players received to Tim Drew).

In the unlikely event that James McDonald and Andrew Lambo turn out to be “Cliff Lee” and “Grady Sizemore,” trading Dotel for them would have been the deal of the decade, and possibly enough to propel the Pirates to greatness.

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