Apr 25, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher James McDonald (53) delivers to the plate during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher James McDonald declares free agency

At the 2013 season began, the Pittsburgh Pirates hoped to finish what they started the previous summer. Conventional wisdom held that if the Bucs were to continue improving and push for a playoff spot, they needed more high-quality pitching, especially from the starters.

By and large, that has happened, as A.J. Burnett has been solid in his second year as a Pirate, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton have recovered from injuries swimmingly, Gerrit Cole has been as advertised in his rookie year and Jeff Locke looks apt to right himself after a midseason slump.

James McDonald hoped to be part of the Pirates’ rotation, too, but a mixture of shoulder tightness and ineffectiveness pushed him into the shadows while the Bucs built their first winning season in 20 years. Pirates management tried to get him back to the form that saw him make 29 starts in 2012, most of them quite good, but it just didn’t happen.

Now, instead of adding to Pittsburgh’s bullpen depth, the 28-year-old McDonald has elected to explore free agency. The Pirates reported as much Saturday afternoon, days after the club designated him for assignment.

McDonald could’ve elected to join the Pirates’ Triple-A roster as well, but it appears his Pittsburgh days are over. It’s tough to ignore what might’ve been for him, even though his results were mediocre in his two years as a starter. Interestingly enough, McDonald posted identical innings totals (171.0) and ERAs (4.21) in 2011 and 2012, numbers that put him slightly below league average.

Still, his stuff was tantalizing for long stretches during 2011 and 2012. At his best, the 6-foot-4 McDonald threw a mid-90s four-seam fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that was closer to a curve than a slider. He also occasionally flashed a plus changeup, but his late-season slide in 2012 will likely be his final legacy for most Pittsburghers.

Although the ending was ugly, McDonald was a low-cost, high-upside pickup when he, along with outfielder Andrew Lambo, was acquired from the Dodgers for reliever Octavio Dotel in July 2010.

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