James McDonald was drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round in 2002, out of Poly High School in Long Beach, California. He was a first baseman when drafted, but didn't sign right away and went to junior college at Golden West JC. He signed in '03, moved to the mound full-time and posted a 3.33 ERA with a 47/15 K/BB in 48 innings of rookie ball, very credible performance and enough to get him a Grade C rating.
However, a sore arm put his pitching future in enough doubt that the Dodgers moved him to the outfield in 2004. He didn't hit well, just .224/.291/.256 in rookie ball. He followed that with a .229/.312/.289 mark in the Pioneer League in 2005, prompting a return to pitching in '06.
He had mixed results for Columbus in the Sally League in 2006, going 5-10, but with a 3.98 ERA and a 146/65 K/BB in 142 innings, just 119 hits allowed. The K/IP and H/IP were positives. His walk rate was high, but given his pitching inexperience this was understandable. I gave him a Grade C entering 2007, noting his need for better command but also pointing out the posiitve components.
McDonald began 2007 at Inland Empire in the California League, going 6-7, 3.95 but with a 104/21 K/BB in just 82 innings. Promoted to Double-A Jacksonville, he went 7-2, 1.71 with a 64/16 K/BB in 53 innings. Again, very impressive K/IP marks, but with improving command. I gave him a Grade B+ in the book this year and rated him as the Number 13 pitching prospect in baseball. This seems to be a higher ranking than other sources are giving him. He is off to a great start this year: 2.92 ERA with a 15/4 K/BB in his first 12.1 innings, 10 hits allowed.
Here is what I like about McDonald.
Stat-wise, I like the improving ratios. His K/IP has always been impressive, but his walk rate has gone down even while pitching at higher levels, a clear marker that he is making a clean transition from thrower to pitcher. The fact that his K/IP remains strong in Double-A is another positive sign. The trendlines are good, in other words.
Scout-wise, he was throwing 86-89 in the Sally League in '06 according to the reports I have, but was throwing 87-93 last year, continuing a gradual bump up in velocity. His curveball and changeup are very good, and adding the three pitches together with sharper command makes a nice package. I also like his athleticism, a key factor I look for in any pitcher. He hasn't shown any arm problems since his initial bout with trouble back in 2003, and perhaps the fact that he backed off pitching then and essentially rested his arm for two years may prevent a recurrance.
McDonald still isn't getting as much attention as he deserves. While he may not be a number one starter type, if he stays healthy I think he's got a good chance to emerge as a fine number three guy, not bad for a guy who was a complete unknown two years ago.