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McDonald Gets Another Shot at L.A.’s 5th Starter Job

The Los Angeles Dodgers are expected to recall right-hander James McDonald from Triple-A Albuquerque sometime over the next few days. McDonald, who was scratched from his scheduled Sunday start for the Isotopes, will likely take on the San Francisco Giants Monday night. The 24 year-old is stuck in between career stages — he’s got too much experience with the Dodgers to qualify as a prospect, but he has yet to establish himself in the majors, either. What’s his fantasy value? Let’s try to find out.

A two-way standout at Long Beach Poly High, McDonald was a draft-and-follow selection in the 11th round of the 2002 draft. L.A. opened up the check book after being impressed with his performance at Golden West (California) Junior College, handing the 6-5, 195 pound pitcher/outfielder a $150,000 bonus. McDonald began his pro career as a starting pitcher in 2003 (8.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 3.33 ERA in 48.2 Rookie Level innings), but a bout of elbow tendinitis led the Dodgers to try him out as a position player. The results were disastrous — the lefty-hitting McDonald put up a sub-.600 OPS between the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast and Pioneer Leagues in 2004 and 2005. Convinced that McDonald couldn’t hit the heat, the Dodgers let him resume throwing it.

McDonald returned to the mound full-time in 2006 with a solid performance in the Low-A South Atlantic League. He struck out over a batter per inning (9.23 K/9), though his control was spotty at times (4.11 BB/9). Darnell McDonald‘s cousin had a 4.00 park-and-luck adjusted FIP in 142.1 innings. James wasn’t back on the scouting radar, though, as he didn’t make Baseball America’s list of the Dodgers’ top 30 prospects following the ’06 season.

In 2007, McDonald emphatically announced his presence as a prospect. He dominated in 134.2 combined innings in the High-A California and Double-A Southern Leagues, posting rates of 11.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9 and a park-and-luck-adjusted FIP of 3.49. About the only concern was his ground ball rate — it fell from 43.9% in ’06 to 38.6% in ’07 — but that’s nit-picking when a guy pitches so well. Utilizing an 87-93 MPH fastball and a pair of quality secondary pitches (a mid-70’s curveball and a high-70’s changeup), McDonald climbed to number seven on L.A.’s prospect list. Saying that McDonald could be a future number three starter, BA praised his “above-average command of three average to plus offerings.”

Beginning to 2008 campaign back in the Southern League, McDonald punched out 8.6 hitters per nine frames, issued 3.5 BB/9 and gave up 0.9 HR/9. With his rate of grounders again declining (35 GB%), his adjusted FIP in 118.2 innings was 4.03. McDonald got bumped up to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in August, but his stay there wouldn’t be long. After punishing PCL hitters with a 28/7 K/BB ratio and a 3.85 adjusted FIP in 22.1 innings (31.6 GB%), McDonald earned a big league call-up in September. He pitched in relief for the Dodgers, and he even got some postseason action — McDonald whiffed seven Phillies batters in 5.1 scoreless frames during the NLCS. After the season, BA boosted him to number two on the Dodgers’ prospect list.

The Dodgers had McDonald open 2009 in the big league rotation, but the club pulled the plug after a few shaky outings. He was shifted to the ‘pen for a while, but was then sent back to Triple-A to get stretched out. McDonald put up a 3.25 adjusted FIP in 30.1 IP for the Isotopes, with a 40/14 K/BB and a 25 GB%. But, when L.A. recalled him in late June, it was as a reliever. McDonald would go on to log 63 innings in the majors, striking out 7.71 per nine, walking 4.86 and surrendering 0.86 HR/9. With a neutral ground ball rate (44.3 GB%), McDonald had a 4.78 xFIP.

This season, McDonald missed time with a broken fingernail and a strained right hamstring. When on the mound for Albuquerque, he has compiled rates of 8.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9 and a 4.39 adjusted FIP in 63.1 IP. McDonald has kept the ball on the ground more this year, with a 43.4 percent ground ball rate.

What can we expect in the majors, should he stick at the back of the Dodgers’ rotation? Prior to the 2010 season, ZiPS projected 7.44 K/9, 4 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9 and a 4.74 FIP for McDonald (CHONE’s forecast came as a reliever). At this point, he looks more like a league-average starter long-term, as opposed to a high-upside arm. McDonald’s curve and change allow him to miss an above-average number of bats, but his control is just so-so and his fly ball tendencies are somewhat worrisome, particularly in the present moment given the Dodgers’ lumbering outfield alignment — the team has the worst collective outfield UZR in the game.

McDonald’s an option in NL-only formats, though Manny, Kemp and Ethier likely won’t do him any favors. As for keeper leagues, he doesn’t really possess the sort of upside to make him a prime target.