The Cubs have announced that the deal with pitcher James McDonald is a one-year, big league contract, and reports say it’s worth $1 million. As is typically the case with deals for arbitration-level players, McDonald’s deal is not guaranteed, about which more below. McDonald also has some incentives built into the deal (presumably designed to pay him a little better if he sticks in the rotation), and he’s under control through the 2015 season by way of arbitration.
So, the Cubs clearly liked something they’ve seen from McDonald this offseason, as he’s had some time to recover from the reported shoulder issues that derailed his 2013 season. What concerns me is that, from mid-2012 on, McDonald has given up 73 ER over his last 104.2 IP – that’s a 6.28 ERA. Perhaps the front office and the coaching staff believe they can get something out of McDonald by re-working a few things, but I’m still surprised that the Cubs had to give him a 40-man spot to get a deal done. Then again, maybe that was the difference maker between what the Cubs were offering and the presumably many other teams that gladly would have brought him in on a minor league deal.
The $1 million salary is obviously higher than a guy gets on a minor league deal – even a veteran – but it’s not that much higher. What he’s really getting here is the big league roster spot, and a slightly better chance of sticking than a guy on a minor league deal. Why? Because even though his contract is “not guaranteed,” it’s rather difficult to boot a guy on a non-guaranteed deal and not have to pay his full salary.
The short version is this: every player in his arbitration years (as McDonald was when the Pirates DFA’d him) gets a “non-guaranteed” contract. That means the team can cut him in Spring Training while paying only a portion of the contract. If he’s cut before 16 days from the start of the regular season, he gets 30 days’ pay. If it’s closer to the season, he gets 45 days’ pay.
The rub is, you can’t just cut a guy for any reason – you can cut him only for baseball reasons. If he gets hurt, you’re stuck with him. If you simply feel like the roster is too full, you’re stuck with him. Those are not adequate reasons to cut him pursuant to the non-guarantee. The standard is “failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability,” and it’s almost never actually employed to cut a guy. In McDonald’s case, if he looks bad in the Spring, he might simply argue that it’s tied to his shoulder issues from last year, and the Cubs took that risk by signing him.
The bottom line here is that, yes, it’s modestly comforting to know that McDonald’s deal is not guaranteed, but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll actually be cut in an effort to save some salary. Then again, a $1 million salary isn’t an enormous deterrent to cutting a guy if he’s really scuffling (and paying him the $1 million), so a lot of this is just academic. If the Cubs really need his roster spot at some point, they may just have to bite the bullet on the money, and turn him loose.
Add it all up, and together with the Jake Arrieta injury news, and this particular deal for McDonald makes a little more sense to me than it did last night.
As for what McDonald might bring to the table, I’ll discuss that much more in the coming days, now that we know for sure he’s in on a big league deal.