Opening Time: James McDonald, Almost Famous

Today's Opening Time is a think piece about a mid-level pitcher struggling with his own limitations (and his club's limitations) in the harsh face of stardom. It's in consideration for the front page, but don't tell the Pirates.

Roto Theory has grown up significantly through the years, but sometimes the best rules are the ones you've held from the early days.

Draft hitting early, figure out pitching later. That's been the basic maxim I've been working off for two decades. It's not complicated, maybe it's not marketing-friendly, but it seems to fit the shape of the assignment. Hitting is the more reliable part of the game, while pitching is an unnatural act with a ton of moving parts; mound stars can go down at any reason, and fresh faces emerge at all times.

James McDonald, come on down. It's all happening. Enjoy your membership privileges in the Circle of Trust.

McDonald's incendiary stuff was on full display in his Thursday turn at Washington. He had a no-hitter and 10 strikeouts through five innings before running out of gas in the sixth; the Nats eventually knocked McDonald out with four hits and three runs in that inning. But McDonald still emerged with his third victory and a fantasy line that anyone will happily accept (5.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 11 K). Pop in the demo and see what you make of it.

The Pittsburgh righty now has a 2.68 ERA and 1.01 WHIP for the year, and 50 strikeouts over 50.1 innings. He's keeping the ball in the park (just two homers allowed) and he's trimmed his walk rate significantly (down to 2.86, one walk lower than his career norm). His fastball, slider and curve all grade out as plus pitches for him this year, and he's even nudged his ground-ball rate into a career-best area. This is what an Age-27 breakout season looks like, and yet somehow McDonald is only rostered in 41 percent of Yahoo! leagues. The small-market screen is alive and well.

There's no reason to be snobbish when you're hunting for players — the game is about numbers, not names. And there's no reason to sit on your hands and wait for more proof; in a competitive mixed league, that strategy turns you into dead money, a dinosaur. You gotta take what you can, when you can, while you can. … and you gotta do it now.

McDonald currently grades out as the No. 14 starting pitcher in the Yahoo! game. His career follows a somewhat-linear pattern, if that comforts you; last year he finally had a full season to prove he belonged in the rotation, and this year he's taking things up a notch. PNC Park is a friendly place for a pitcher to work, and there are plenty of weak spots to exploit in this division and in the NL as a whole.

If McDonald is long gone in your league, perhaps you can land him in a trade. Here are some of the more-established names that I like less than McDonald right now: Josh Beckett (83 percent, you know the drill), Chad Billingsley (68 percent, upside is gone now), Ubaldo Jimenez (65 percent? are you shaving points?), Hiroki Kuroda (63 percent, wrong league and division), and Brandon McCarthy (57 percent; won't be a dominant strikeout guy and he's had trouble staying healthy in the past). I know Brandon Morrow's strikeout potential is hard to turn away from, but isn't McDonald a safer play in his cushy environment? There are several others; we can discuss in the comments.

According to the fact checker, McDonald will get the Mets, Reds, Brewers and Royals over his next four turns (assuming no rainouts or rotation tweaks). Sounds like a tour worth spending on. It's too late to be in the front row for this show, but good seating remains available.

• In with the new phenom, out with the old one. I'll openly admit I'm a little sad to see Kerry Wood is apparently preparing to retire; the Associated Press reports he's going to call it a career after pitching one more time. He'll at least go out on an appropriate stage, with the Cubs facing the White Sox this weekend in interleague play at Wrigley Field.

Wood's 20-strikeout gem from 1998, at age 20, remains the finest game I've ever seen from someone who didn't throw a no-hitter. Filthy fastball, slider and curve, Wiffle Ball stuff. "We were trying to win the game," Houston manager Larry Dierker said after the 2-0 loss. "It's just that we couldn't hit the ball." No one had a chance against Wood that day.

I suppose Wood and Mark Prior will go down as the poster boys for how to mishandle young pitchers; Dusty Baker rode these guys into the ground early in their careers and there was a price to be paid later. Hopefully the industry has learned a thing or two over the last decade, lessons that will be applied to the fresh arms that come into the game. Mind you, there isn't always a fall guy or assignable blame when a pitcher gets hurt. Again, it's an unnatural act. Pitchers with smooth mechanics and modest workloads get hurt sometimes, too.

Wood's career had a nifty final act in the bullpen; he was shifted to closer in 2008 and turned in a dazzling 34-save campaign that year (along with 84 strikeouts in 66.1 innings). The Yahoo! Fantasy Staff had an up-close view of Wood during one June evening in San Diego; our group was sitting just a few rows from the Chicago bullpen, so we got to see Wood warm up (mitt popping on every pitch), slowly walk to the Petco mound, dominate to another handshake. I vaguely remember one clown belting out a few bars of Closing Time when the relief signal was made. (Okay, that was me.)

Good luck in your next project, big guy. Maybe you didn't have the electric career we all were hoping for back in the late 90s, but the good times are frozen in the scrapbook. We're going to remember Kerry Wood smoking heat past the Houston Astros on a lazy Chicago afternoon. (And we're going to remember Wood's final scene, a three-pitch strikeout of Dayan Viciedo on a lazy Chicago afternoon. If you didn't love today's perfect Wrigley sendoff, you don't have a heart.)

• Roy Oswalt is another 34-year-old righty in the twilight of his career, but he's not quite ready to go gently into that good night. According to Ken Rosenthal, Oswalt has recently thrown bullpen sessions for the Phillies and Red Sox, and the veteran is slated to audition for two more clubs in the next few days. Rosenthal feels there could be a signing in the next week.

Oswalt's potential fantasy value is a location-driven story, of course. I wouldn't touch him in Fenway Park, for obvious reasons, but I'd love him with almost any NL contender, should he find a possible suitor. Oswalt had a 3.69 ERA and 1.34 WHIP for the Phillies last year — that at least makes him streamable — and he was dynamite after his trade to Philadelphia in 2010. Keep an open mind here. (Also keep in mind that it could be several weeks before Oswalt throws a real pitch for anyone, no matter how quickly he signs.)

The Padres had a wheel play in motion Thursday, as they completely turned over their middle infield. Orlando Hudson is gone altogether — designated for assignment — while Jason Bartlett (knee) landed on the disabled list. I'm not really interested in Alexi Amarista, the new second baseman, but shortstop Everth Cabrera brings an intriguing case.

I understand why Yahoo! nation isn't jumping on the Cabrera story right away — his ownership tag is still at Blutarski level, and he didn't do anything in his debut (0-for-3). And if Cabrera doesn't move up in the order — he batted seventh Thursday — it might be hard for him to do a lot of running for an NL club. But the plus angle for Cabrera is simple enough: he showed us decent wheels back with the Padres in 2009 (25 steals in 103 games) and he was off to a superb start in Triple-A this year (.333 average, 15-for-15 on the bases). He's still just 25. Keep an eye on him this weekend, see if the rabbit runs anywhere.

As for Hudson, while his mixed-league value is probably tanked for good, he could turn into an intriguing mono-league play if he lands in the right spot. Compared to the jokers that Detroit is currently using at second base, Hudson would look like Joe Morgan, circa 1976. Get on the phone, Mike Illitch. Your infield desperately needs someone who can handle the leather (Hudson's no longer a defensive star, but he's still capable in the field. And just about everyone in Detroit is tired of the Ryan Raburn nightmare. If Lester Bangs is looking down at this mess, he's having a good laugh.)

Speed Round: Is Colorado cornerman Jordan Pacheco a possible late bloomer in the thin air? He had an electric 17 games with Triple-A Colorado Springs (.433/.479/.627), prompting a callup, and he's collected four hits (one homer, one double) and three RBIs over the last three games. Everyone knows that Nolan Arenado will eventually be the Rockies third baseman, but he hasn't been anything special in Double-A this year (note the .423 slugging) - it looks like more development time is needed. Pacheco is currently zero-percent owned in Yahoo!, but I'll kick the tires on him at home against the Mariners this weekend. … Although Brennan Boesch is starting to hit lasers again, he might not get his No. 2 slot back from Andy Dirks. Both players homered in Thursday's loss to Minnesota. … Adam Lind was sent to Triple-A, surprising no one. An outright release would have been justified, too. … The Cardinals were whistling a positive tune about Allen Craig a day ago, but now it looks like he'll probably need a DL stint while his hamstring injury heals. An absolute shame, because he has major breakout written all over him. … Kevin Youkilis might hobble back to the Red Sox early next week, perhaps Tuesday. Will Middlebrooks has slowed down considerably over the last week, but maybe he'll show something in Philly that keeps him in the mix. … A one-game suspension for Balking Bob Davison? Okay, that's a step in the right direction. You're not the show, blue. Get it together, man.

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