Young McDonald Better on the Farm?

The Dodgers are going to begin the 2009 season with top prospect James McDonald relieving rather than starting, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.  McDonald has started almost exclusively the last three years in the minors, making 73 of his 83 appearances as a starter.  McDonald left a strong impression in September and October of 2008, pitching a total of 11.2 scoreless innings.  However impressive those performances were, McDonald rarely pitched in a meaningful spot.

When McDonald Entered 2008 Games
Date Game Status
Sept 17 down 15-7
Sept 19 down 7-0
Sept 23 up 10-1
Sept 26 up 2-0
NLCS Game 2   down 8-2
NLCS Game 5 down 5-0

Out of six games, the only time McDonald entered a game with a lead or deficit of less than 5 runs was on the final weekend of the year in San Francisco, when McDonald entered in the 4th inning of a game the Dodgers were simply using to get their starters some work before the playoffs.

I'm not saying this invalidates McDonald's performance, but let's not go crazy over this small sampling of games before we remove him from his rightful place in the rotation.  I can sort of understand the Dodgers wanting to limit the innings of a young pitcher, but McDonald -- who threw 152.1 innings in 2008 -- is already 24.  I'm not sure how conservative they need to be.

I was a little disturbed by this quote from pitching coach Rick Honeycutt in Gurnick's column:

"We're hoping to do what we did with Chad a few years ago,"

I certainly hope this doesn't mean McDonald will have to wait until late June to crack the rotation like Chad Billingsley did in 2007.  I also hope Randy Wolf and Claudio Vargas combine for slighly better than the 30 combined starts of Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko (combined 78 ERA+). 

But this isn't so much about McDonald not being in the starting rotation, at least to start the season, because we know he will eventually be in the rotation, and I'm confident it will be sometime in 2009.  The club has three off days in April, and they won't need a 5th starter until April 25 at the earliest, so perhaps holding McDonald back isn't so bad after all.

However, it would be nice to see him starting everyday in Albuquerque rather than getting mop-up time in the Dodger bullpen.  That way, he won't have to build back up his arm strength when it's time for him to finally enter the rotation.  And trust me, given the current roster and projected acquisitions, McDonald's time will come soon enough.

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