James McDonald is growing into the Pirates’ ace at age 27

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James McDonald pitched well for the Pirates in the one-and-a-half seasons after they acquired him from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel in mid-2010, but so far this season he’s taken a major step forward at age 27 to emerge as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter.

McDonald threw 244 innings with a 4.15 ERA in 2010 and 2011, but after shutting out the Reds for eight innings Monday he now has a 2.20 ERA through 10 starts this year. And just as importantly his secondary numbers show a significant improvement that goes beyond ERA.

McDonald averaged 7.1 strikeouts and 4.0 walks per nine innings in 2010/2011, but this year he has 8.7 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings. He’s always had good raw stuff, but McDonald is throwing his straight fastball less and relying on his sinker/slider combination a lot more, resulting in 22 percent more missed bats and 10 percent more ground balls along with 35 percent fewer walks and a much better job keeping the ball in the ballpark.

Obviously 10 starts are just 10 starts, but McDonald’s performance looks much more like legitimate improvement than some sort of early season fluke and that would be a huge development in the Pirates’ never-ending quest for a winning record.

Kyle Schwarber is “probably, arguably” in The Best Shape of His Life

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Joe Maddon just held his annual media availability here at the Winter Meetings. During the scrum he said that Kyle Schwarber “looked great the other day” at a Cubs community event and that . . . wait for it . . . “he’s in, probably, arguably in the best shape of his life.” Maddon went on to say that, if Schwarber looks good in spring training, he might even be the Cubs leadoff hitter in 2018.

Schwarber is only 24, but the former catcher turned outfielder is going to spend most of his career as a DH, with another team obviously, unless he shows the Cubs that he can be a regular defender. The Cubs would love to see him in better shape whether they keep him or shop him, and if it’s the latter, they’ll want to show potential trade partners that he can play defense so as not to limit his market. It’s in everyone’s interests for him to be lean, mean and a bit more flexible once spring training starts.

To that end, according to a recent report, Schwarber “has been on a mission this offseason to transform his body.” And now Maddon is playing up the BSOHL angle. Whether that’s salesmanship or not, all eyes are going to be on Schwarber come February.