James McDonald – A low risk option with potential high rewards

During the past few weeks I have been checking out all of the Dodger rumors I could possibly find. That daily search has unbelievably led me to following the movement of minor league free agents from team to team. More specifically my interest has zoomed in on what the Dodgers are doing with the annual musical chairs of roster building, particularly at the AAA level with the signing of minor league free agents.

A check of the present Albuquerque Isotope roster reveals only one of the 2013 starters is presently listed. Red Patterson, who split the season between relief pitching and starting, is the only 2014 returnee. We are pretty much guaranteed that one or both of Matt Magill and Stephen Fife will start the season in Albuquerque. The rest of the presently listed Isotope pitching staff includes eight pitchers signed as minor league free agents by the Dodgers. It is encouraging to note that their ages range from 23 to 28, a deviation from the past when veteran pitchers often in their mid thirties filled out the Isotope roster. The present group of minor league free agents signed in the past few weeks includes only one pitcher who worked as a starter in 2013 – Drew Carpenter of the Colorado Rockies AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

Without some pitching help, things could be a little difficult at Isotopes Park this season. (Photo courtesy of reddit.com)

As it stands right now, the Albuquerque Isotopes could be in desperate need of starting pitching when their 2014 season begins in April. (Photo courtesy of reddit.com)

Unless something else is in the works, the Albuquerque Isotopes need starting pitchers for the 2014 season. I would guess that Chattanooga Lookouts pitchers Duke von Schamann, Zach Lee, Ross Stripling, Garreet Gould and Chris Reed will not start the season with the Isotopes. Andres Santiago and Carlos Frias might be options to move from the Lookouts to the Isotopes.

While reviewing the minor league free agent list posted by Baseball America, I couldn’t help but wonder what the criteria was that MLB teams used to sign minor league free agents. That is, could it be simply because they might be young or because they might be viewed as an overlooked diamond in the rough. Perhaps others might be seen as previous diamonds that have lost their luster and simply need some polishing. Maybe others are seen as late bloomers or are left-handers. Whatever the criteria, these young men are needed to fill our rosters – especially at the AAA level and to a lesser degree at the AA level, with some that might even make it onto MLB rosters.

I wondered why the Dodgers hadn’t signed Jeyckol De Leon, a 22 year old catcher who hit .298 with Kingsport of the Appalachian Rookie League in 2013 or 20 year old left-handed pitcher Pedro Reyes who posted a 1.36 ERA in 39 innings with the DSL Mariners. Former Atlanta Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens has still not signed a minor league contract while just last week former Dodger prospect Trayvon Robinson was signed by the Dodgers.

It just so happens the Dodgers are also looking for a #5 starter. After Masahiro Tanaka signed with the Yankees, the Dodgers have been rumored to be interested in 37 year old Bronson Arroyo .Other possibilities include in house AA pitchers Zach Lee and Ross Stripling as well as AAA pitchers Stephen Fife and Matt Magill.

Why not add former Dodger James McDonald to this list? Assuming he is open to signing a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training there doesn’t seem to be any downside to bringing McDonald back into the organization.

McDonald was drafted in the 11th round of the 2002 First Year Player Draft by the Dodgers. He signed with the Dodgers as an 18 year old out of Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California. Over seven years McDonald worked his way through the Dodger minor league system. His progress was steady and perhaps a bit unexpected. At one point I actually felt he was ahead of Clayton Kershaw on the Dodgers minor league pitching depth chart.

Many feel that McDonald was never given an opportunity to prove his value as a starting pitcher by the Dodgers. (Photo credit - Kirby-Lee)

Some feel that James McDonald was never given a fair chance to prove his value as a starting pitcher by the Dodgers. (Photo credit – Kirby-Lee)

McDonald broke in with the Dodgers in 2009 and pitched mostly in relief in 2009 and 2010, although he did make five starts with the Dodgers. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the July trade deadline – along with Andrew Lambo – for Octavio Dotel in 2010. After going 5-3 as a starter following his trade to Pittsburgh he pitched 171 innings in both 2011 and 2012 with the Pirates. McDonald had a 2.37 ERA before the all-star break in 2012 and was given consideration as an all-star but had a 7.52 ERA after the all-star break.

McDonald was lights out for the Pirates during the first half of the 2012 season. (Photo credit - Justin Edmonds)

McDonald was lights out for the Pirates during the first half of the 2012 season.
(Photo credit – Justin Edmonds)

Diagnosed with shoulder problems in 2013 he spent most of the season on the DL, pitched 19 innings in rehab assignments and was designated for assignment on September 7. He cleared waivers and chose to become a free agent instead of reporting to the Pirates AAA affiliate the Indianapolis Indians.

While he would be a long shot to make the opening day roster, James McDonald is a known quantity, a Southern California native and may be that diamond that just needs some polishing. His 2013 minor league statistics were impressive and he often frequented the top 10 prospect lists while in the Dodgers minor league system. As far back as 2007 Baseball America rated his curveball the best in the Dodgers minor league system and in 2009 ranked his change up as the best on the farm. Granted he has lost velocity on his fastball but it is not known how long his nagging shoulder problems have been a hindrance to his velocity.

Twenty-nine years old seems too early to give up on the right-handed McDonald, especially on a minor league deal. The risk is negligible but the reward could be significant. However, isn’t that the same assessment given to just about any minor league free agent signing? Why not James? He had the tools and the expectation would be that his tool box is not empty. Perhaps the tools just need some sharpening with pitching coaches Chuck Crim , Rick Honeycutt , Glenn Dishman and others doing the honing.

As mentioned, McDonald would be a long shot to make the Dodgers 2014 opening day roster – a very long shot; but the Isotopes are in serious need of starting pitching. James McDonald has had relatively good success at high altitudes posting a 3.63 ERA with the Las Vegas 51’s in 2008, a 3.26 ERA with the Albuquerque Isotopes in 2009, and was 6-1 with the Isotopes in 2010. It seems he could fill a starting role with the Isotopes and provide even more pitching depth for the parent club. Perhaps while he is still working to regain his shoulder strength he could do so by pitching in relief within the Dodgers organization – a role with which he is not unfamiliar.

It is surprising, at least to me, that he simply cleared waivers with no team willing to take a chance on the 6’4”, 205 pound McDonald. A good guess would be that he is working to secure a MLB free agent deal as the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, among others, who need back-of-the-rotation pitchers – perhaps this is why he has not yet signed a minor league deal as a step towards working his way back to the big leagues. But with spring training only two weeks away, chances are he would now be willing to sign a minor league contract.

Let’s bring J Mac home, Ned.


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3 Responses to “James McDonald – A low risk option with potential high rewards”

  1. Ron Cervenka says:

    Great article, Harold – definitely thinking outside of the box.

    Like many Dodger fans I had very high hopes for James McDonald but always felt that all of Colletti’s and McCourt’s focus and attention went towards Kershaw and Billingsley and none was given to J Mac.

    Perhaps it means absolutely nothing by James never appeared happy and I rarely (if ever) saw him smile. Again, this could mean nothing but is could also mean that he was unhappy with Dodgers management. That said, I would have absolutely no problem bringing him back – as you say, the risk is negligible but the reward could be significant.

  2. Bluenose Dodger says:

    “I grew up in Long Beach dreaming of one day being a Dodger,” McDonald recalls.

    The road for James has been bumpy.

  3. OldBrooklynFan says:

    It’s nice to read about “Jimmy Mack” again. Hard to forget him as a Dodger. I remember he had a lot of promise but then sort of dwindled out. I’ll always remember when he was lit up he just kept plugging along like nothing was happening. I too, would like to see him get another shot with the team.

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