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.
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?