We know that James McDonald can pitch six blank frames on a good night. We also know that he has at least moderate durability, lasting five innings or so while giving up four runs on less stellar occasions.
Not bad for a rookie. On paper, at least, he is beginning to look a bit like Brad Lincoln.
Lincoln had one very strong outing of seven innings of shutout ball in a 2-0 decision. He's also had a number of mediocre five and six inning starts, with only some of the latter qualifying as quality starts.
But there is a tie breaker that appears to work in McDonald's favor, at least for now: strength of schedule.
McDonald has started against three NL West division teams: the San Diego Padres (last night), the Colorado Rockies (several days ago), and the San Francisco Giants (as a Dodger).
Assuming he stays with the Pirates, he won't get a chance to go against his former Dodger teammates for the rest of the season.
McDonald's two weaker starts came against the top two NL West division contenders. It goes back to the fact that the Pirates are not yet competitive against contenders. But that's a side issue for now, as long as they beat other, weaker teams.
His shutout came against a pretty good (better than .500) Colorado Rockies team. That suggests he might be good for quality starts (not necessarily zero-run games) against non-contenders.
On the other hand, Lincoln's strongest showing came against the Chicago Cubs, the one outfit the Pirates have feasted on—even with the likes of Charlie Morton and Brian Burres on the hill.
No kudos here.
Lincoln has posted weak showings against teams like the Washington Nationals, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Houston Astros, whom the Pirates will HAVE to beat if they are to amount to anything.
No help for the club there.
For now, at least, James McDonald looks like a better bet for fifth starter than Brad Lincoln. Better than Dan McCutchen. Probably better than Charlie Morton or Kevin Hart.
And it goes back to the fact that "another Brad Lincoln," or better, (plus a fielding prospect) will have been a great return in a trade for two months of a closer named Octavio Dotel.