Sept 2, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher James McDonald (53) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Indians Offseason Target: James McDonald

Is James McDonald the Perfect High Risk Low Reward Combo?

It’s no secret that the Indians could use another starting pitching option or two.

Last year’s rotation certainly exceeded expectations, but with the impending free agent cases of starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, it appears that the Indians would be well-served to add arms from outside the organization to the mix. The Indians already have a number of internal candidates (such as Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and others), but I’d be lying if I said that I was ready to rely on those guys just yet.

I would expect the Indians to sign a starter or two to a major league deal, but adding extra depth is always worth exploring.

If you’ve been visiting Wahoo’s on First this winter (hopefully you have, or you’re missing a lot), you will have noticed that we’ve constructed a series of offseason targets for the Indians to consider. These free agents come from a variety of backgrounds, so it’s important to categorize certain players from others. If you’re looking for a potential diamond in the rough, we’ve profiled a few “Ugly List” candidates. The “Ruggedly Handsome” list profiles free agents who are certainly in demand, but still have a chance of playing in Cleveland. The “Sexy List” profiles the cream-of-the-crop free agents, but those who probably have no chance of signing in Cleveland any time soon. The list of candidates we’ve profiled can be found here (Jeff Baker was also profiled here, while Scott Sizemore was as well). Some of these targets have already signed elsewhere, however.

Without further ado, up next in the series is former Pirates and Dodgers right-hander James McDonald.

Free Agent List: Ugly

2013 Salary and Contract Status: In his first season of arbitration eligibility this past offseason, James McDonald earned $3.025 million from the Pirates. However, in September he was designated for assignment by Pittsburgh and ultimately outrighted to AAA after clearing waivers. He refused the assignment and elected free agency instead, and is still unsigned. However, McDonald still has multiple years of team control left and is not eligible be a free agent until 2016, at the earliest.

Past Three Seasons: Originally drafted by the Dodgers in 2002, James McDonald was traded to the Pirates (along with outfielder Andrew Lambo) for reliever Octavio Dotel at the Trade Deadline in 2010.

After a successful audition for the Pirates in 2010, McDonald posted a 4.21 ERA that was backed up fairly well with a 4.68 FIP and 4.46 xFIP. He posted a respectable K/9 rate of 7.5, but his BB/9 of 4.1 was a bit higher than it should have been.

james mcdonald

Despite his recent struggles, McDonald is a low-cost addition that could pay dividends for the Indians if he can regain his old form. (Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

He improved that in 2012 (lowering his BB/9 rate to a more modest 3.6), and began the season on an incredible hot streak. At the All-Star Break that season, McDonald held a sterling 2.37 ERA (but that was partially helped by an incredibly low .245 BABIP). However, the wheels fell off from there, as he posted a 7.52 ERA after the break and was demoted to the bullpen by the end of the season. Before the break, McDonald held hitters to a suffocating .196/.258/.312 line in 425 plate appearances. From there, however, he allowed a line of .292/.388/.551 in 288 plate appearances. McDonald’s .245 BABIP before the break inflated to a much higher .315 mark, which at least partially explains his struggles from there. I’m not lovin’ it. (Get it? It’s a McDonald’s reference? I still write my own jokes, for those of you who are wondering.)

In 2013, McDonald returned to the rotation, where he made a total of 6 uneventful starts that resulted in a 5.76 ERA (as well as a mammoth 6.1 BB/9 rate) and a demotion to the minors, where he posted a 6.55 ERA while appearing for four of the Pirates’ minor league affiliates. He was even sent down to the Rookie League for a few appearances.

After running out of patience with him, he was eventually cut loose by the Pirates. It’s also worth noting that McDonald’s fastball velocity has dipped from 92.7 mph in 2011 to 90.5 during his brief tour of the majors in 2013.

Why Cleveland? Despite the severe (and I mean severe) struggles James McDonald has had over the last year and a half, he’s not finished just yet. He just turned 29 years old in October, and he has had success in the major leagues. McDonald was ranked as the #56 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America before the 2009 season, so he has the pedigree too. He’s also got baseball bloodlines (which are more important than they’re given credit for), as he is the cousin of former outfielders Darnell McDonald and Donzell McDonald.

As you’ve heard numerous times by now, the Indians need starters. However, they probably don’t have the money to chase after the bigger names on the market. As a result, while they’ll probably sign a decent starter or two, some of their additions may need to come from the bargain bin. That’s where McDonald comes in.

In addition, I have a lot of faith in pitching coach Mickey Callaway after the work that he did with the Tribe’s rotation last year, especially in turning around both Jimenez and Kazmir. It’s possible that other pitchers in need of a reboot could look to Cleveland and Callaway as a means of getting their careers back on track. Quite simply, McDonald is a mess right now, but so were Jimenez and Kazmir at this point last year.

There’s still enough left in James McDonald’s right arm for him to be of service to a major league team. And if he can come anywhere near his old form, there may be a lot of potential waiting to be untapped. The fact that he is still controllable for another few years is great as well.

Expected Contract: Although James McDonald cleared waivers after being designated for assignment last year, I think that was more about his salary in 2013 rather than about a pure lack of interest. Teams are always looking for the next reclamation project, and McDonald certainly fits the bill.

However, I highly doubt that a team will give him a major league deal (although this has been an interesting offseason so far, so I can’t really rule anything out). With that being said, McDonald will likely sign for a minor league deal this offseason. That, the success he has shown in the majors, his relative youth, and other factors should give McDonald a number of potential suitors. The Twins had interest in him when he was designated for assignment, but I don’t know if they’re still interested or not.

I’ll probably never argue against a minor league contract, so hopefully the Indians consider McDonald a possibility. If Cleveland signs him and it doesn’t work out, he can either provide depth in the minors (and I love depth) or the team can simply cut ties with him. There’s very little risk.

The Indians certainly aren’t swimming in money, so they need to be smarter with their money than a lot of other teams do. If a pitcher with the youth, track record and potential of James McDonald is available for a minor league deal, then the Indians should jump at the chance.

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