James Zell McDonald was born October 19, 1984, in Long Beach, California. McDonald comes from athletic bloodlines: his dad, James Sr., played basketball at USC and was in the NFL as a tight end with the Los Angeles Rams. His cousins were ballplayers, too: Darnell is with the Red Sox, Donzell had a cup of coffee in the majors, and Darin is in the Philly organization.
He attended Long Beach Poly HS, which boasts one of the most storied high school athletic programs in the state. Its baseball team has graduated Milton Bradley, Oscar Brown, Ollie Brown, Chris Gwynn, Tony Gwynn, Randy Moffitt and Chase Utley.
McDonald played basketball, baseball and a bit of football for the Jack Rabbits. He was thought of more as a first baseman than a pitcher when he was selected in the 11th round in 2002 as a "draft and follow" pick of the LA Dodgers while at Golden West College, a JC in Huntington Beach.
Even though a Dodger fan, like most Long Beach kids, he waited until the midnight hour before finally signing with the Dodgers for a $150,000 bonus. It was probably worth the wait; his pitching had improved enough that the scouts realized it was his ticket to the show.
He pitched for the Gulf Coast Dodgers in 2003, but was off the mound for the 2004 and most of the 2005 seasons due to tendinitis. Instead of rehab, McDonald served his time as an outfielder, both to do something to pass the time away constructively and to see if he had what it took with the lumber.
His arm eventually recovered 100%; the outfield placed little strain on it. And he could focus on making his name as a pitcher - .224 and .229 batting averages proved his future was up to his arm, not his thunder stick.
J-Mac returned to pitch six innings for the Ogden Raptors at the end of 2005 and moved on to the Class A Columbus Catfish in 2006 to toss full time. He led the rotation with a 3.97 earned run average, 143 IPs and 147 Ks, along with an OBA of .229, though he finished just 5-10.
McDonald started 2007 with the High A Inland Empire 66ers, and had a 6-7 slate with 3.95 ERA and fanned 104 batters in 82 innings (11.4/9 IP) while walking 21.
He was promoted to AA Jacksonville in mid-season. J-Mac posted a 7-2 mark with the Suns, recording a 1.71 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .218 mark. He finished with a combined 13-9/3.07 line with 168 strikeouts and 37 walks in 134 innings of work, and was named the Dodgers Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Still with Jacksonville to start 2008, he went 5-3 with a 3.19 ERA and whiffed 113 batters in 118-2/3 innings, walking 46.
In August, he was promoted to the AAA Las Vegas 51s. He went 1-0 in his first two starts, striking out 20 batters in that span, and ended up 2-1 with a 3.63 ERA, striking out 28 in 22-1/3 frames.
MLB.com selected him as #45 among its minor league prospects, and he was again LA's Minor League POTY again.
He was called up to the Dodgers on September 1. He made his major league debut on September 17th against the Pittsburgh Pirates, working one scoreless inning in relief. He impressed enough to earn a spot on the post-season roster, and made two scoreless appearances against the Phillies, striking out seven in 5-1/3 innings.
McDonald earned a spot in the Dodgers' starting rotation to start the 2009 season and started his first game in the majors on April 10 against the San Diego Padres. He got ripped, and made just three more starts, only lasting as many as five innings once, during his first MLB win against the Rockies.
J-Mac was demoted to the bullpen. With an ERA of 6.75, he was optioned back to AAA on May 14th, and then recalled by the Dodgers on June 19th, and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen the rest of the season, where he shaved his ERA down to 4.00.
That was the beginning of the great James McDonald debate. Some felt he was better suited as a bullpen back-ender (his heater went from 92 MPH as a starter to 96 as a reliever), while others felt his three-pitch mix was starter's stuff.
In spring training, they primarily evaluated him as a starter, and they sent him back to Albuquerque to join the rotation. He was recalled by the Dodgers to start the game on July 19th against the San Francisco Giants, and that was followed by a few appearances from the bullpen.
The Dodgers gave up on J-Mac, never settling on a role for him. On July 31st he and Andrew Lambo were traded to the Pirates for reliever Octavio Dotel.
The famous quote to describe the deal was written by Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus: "MCDONALD? FOR DOTEL? Damn, everything you’ve ever said bad about Neil Huntington, take it back."
It did seem like a steal. McDonald had gone 26-23 with a 3.40 in 93 minor league appearances, with 79 starts.
But in 53 appearances with the Dodgers, only five of them starts, he went 5-6 with a 4.11 ERA, with 63 strikeouts in 76-2/3 innings, but also with 40 walks and .262 opponents' batting average.
Not known as a power pitcher, McDonald makes up for his 88-92 MPH heat with a deceptive, high arm angle and the ability to change speeds. His 12-to-6 curveball and sinking changeup are considered his best pitches, and he's added a work-in-progress slider to his repertoire this season.
The Pirates, like the Dodgers, see J-Mac as a starter. But unlike LA, the Pirates are in a situation where they can run him out on the hill every five days without the pressure of a pennant race to hone his craft. He's worked under 125 innings of MLB ball, so there will be a learning curve involved. But so far, so good.
He's 3-4 in seven starts, with a 4.17 ERA and 40 K's in 41 innings with 16 walks. His command has been streaky, and J-Mac is prone to get into deep counts. His fastball command has been good, and he's hitting 94 with it as a starter. When his control is on, he's mixed his pitches well, an art he admitted that he'd like to improve on, to keep the hitters honest.
And he's not a stranger in the clubhouse; he played with Andy LaRoche and Delwyn Young in the Dodger system. He's a great fit for the suits, too; McDonald, if our calculations are right, doesn't hit arbitration until after the 2011 or maybe 2012 season, depending on how this year's service time shakes out.
There are no guarantees in the baseball business. But James McDonald will get a chance to thrive in the Pirate organization, and so far he's taken the opportunity and run with it.