This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 3rd, Ed Phelps and Neal Heaton

Seven former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date.

Matt Diaz, outfielder for the 2011 Pirates. He was a 17th round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999 out of Florida State, who made at least a brief appearances in the majors each season from 2003 until 2013. He debuted in pro ball at 21 years old with Hudson Valley of the short-season New York-Penn League, where he hit .245 with 15 doubles, 22 runs and 20 RBIs. In 2000, he skipped to High-A, where he played for St Petersburg of the Florida State League. He hit .270 in 106 games, with 21 doubles, six homers and 53 RBIs. During his first two seasons combined, he walked just 17 times. Diaz played for Bakersfield of the High-A California League in 2001, where he batted .328 in 131 games, with 40 doubles, 17 homers and 81 RBIs. He was with Orlando of the Double-A Southern League in 2002, where he hit .274 in 122 games, with 71 runs, 28 doubles, ten homers, 50 RBIs, 31 steals and 34 walks. The 2003 season was split evenly between Orlando and Durham of the Triple-A International League. Combined he hit .354 in 127 games, with 67 runs, 39 doubles, 13 homers, 86 RBIs and 15 steals, with strong results at both levels. Diaz saw very limited time in the majors in both 2003 and 2004 with Tampa, playing a total of 14 games. Four of those games came in 2003, and they all happened in July. His 2004 big league time came in September after he hit .332 in 134 games with Durham, finishing with 47 doubles, 21 homers, 93 RBIs and 15 steals. He batted .191 for the Devil Rays that year, though three of his four hits went for extra bases.

The Devil Rays lost him on release waivers to the Baltimore Orioles in February of 2005, then just two days later he ended up with the Kansas City Royals after he had the option to become a free agent or accept a position with the Orioles. He took free agency and signed with the Royals. Diaz hit .281 with one homer in 34 games for the Royals. He tore up Triple-A that season with Omaha of the Pacific Coast League, putting up a 1.069 OPS in 64 games. The Royals traded him to the Atlanta Braves in December of 2005. Diaz saw instant success with the Braves as a semi-regular in the lineup, who also saw a lot of time off the bench. In 323 plate appearances over 124 games in 2006, he batted .327 with 15 doubles, seven homers and 32 RBIs. The next year he hit .338 with 21 doubles, 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 135 games. He started 140 of his 259 games during those two seasons. Diaz was limited to 43 games in 2008 due to a knee injury suffered in late May when he crashed into the outfield wall. He hit just .244 with two homers and three walks, leading to a lowly .568 OPS. The next season he set career highs with 56 runs, 13 homers, 58 RBIs and 35 walks, while hitting .313 with 18 doubles and 12 steals in 125 games.

In 2010, Diaz hit .250 with 17 doubles, seven homers and 31 RBIs in 84 games for the Braves. On December 14, 2010 he signed a two-year contract with the Pirates. Diaz played exactly 100 games with Pittsburgh, hitting .259 with 19 RBIs and no homers, resulting in a .627 OPS. On August 31, 2011 he was traded to the Braves for minor league pitcher Eliecer Cardenas. He remained in Atlanta through the end of 2012, then finished his big league career with a brief stint for the Miami Marlins in 2013. After the trade, he batted .286 in 16 games, with one double and one walk. In 2012, Diaz hit .222 in 51 games, seeing more time off of the bench that year, making 23 starts all year. He signed with the New York Yankees in December of 2012, but he was cut during the middle of Spring Training in 2013, then signed with the Marlins eight days later. He hit .341 in 24 minor league games, but he hit just .167 in his final ten big league games. A left knee injury put him on the disabled list from May 20th until the end of the season. Diaz finished as a .290 hitter in 736 Major League games, with 212 runs, 98 doubles, 45 homers and 226 RBIs. He batted .297 as a starter during his career and .254 as a pinch-hitter.

Neal Heaton, pitcher for the 1989-91 Pirates. He was a second round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1981 out of the University of Miami, who made his Major League debut just one season later. By 1983 he was already an 11-game winner in the majors, who not only threw three shutouts, but also saved seven games. Heaton was originally drafted in the first round by the New York Mets out of high school in January of 1979, selected first overall, but he decided to attend college instead. He went straight to Double-A Chattanooga of the Southern League after signing, where he went 4-4, 3.97 in 77 innings over 11 starts. Heaton was in Triple-A with Charleston of the International League the next year, going 10-5, 4.01 in 172.2 innings, before joining the Indians in September for four starts and four relief appearances. He had a 5.23 ERA in 31 innings during his first cup of coffee, with 16 walks and 14 strikeouts. Heaton went 11-6, 4.16 in 149.1 innings over 16 starts and 23 relief appearances during his first full season in the majors in 1983. He threw three shutouts that year and he picked up seven saves. He moved into the starting role full-time the next two seasons and did not pitch well, but was also hurt by some poor teams behind him. He posted a 12-15, 5.21 record in 198.2 innings over 34 starts and four relief outings in 1984. In 1985, he went 9-17, 4.90 in a career high 207.2 innings. Heaton was never much of a strikeout pitcher, and he had just 82 strikeouts during the 1985 season.

Heaton was traded to the Minnesota Twins in June of 1986 after posting a 4.24 ERA in 12 starts. After the deal, he went 4-9, 3.98 in 124.1 innings. He threw a total of 198.2 innings that year. The following February, he was dealt to the Montreal Expos, who kept him until late spring 1989, when he was shipped to the Pirates in exchange for 24-year-old pitcher Brett Gideon. Heaton went 13-10, 4.52 in 32 starts in 1987. Up to this season, he basically average one walk for every strikeout. He not only set a career high with 105 strikeouts in 193.1 innings in 1987, his walk rate was cut in half, going from 3.7 walks per nine innings in 1986, down to 1.7 in 1987. During the 1988 season, he spent the first two months in the starting rotation, then moved to a relief role on June 17th, after putting up a 6.12 ERA. He finished the year off fine in relief, but still ended up going 3-10, 4.99 in 97.1 innings. As quick as he improved his walk rate, it went right back to previous standards, finishing with a 43:43 BB/SO ratio.

Heaton started 18 games for the Pirates in 1989 and pitched another 24 games out of the bullpen. He had a career best 3.05 ERA in 147.1 innings pitched that year. In 1990, he went 12-9, 3.45 in 146 innings over 24 starts and six relief outings, helping the Pirates to their first division title since 1979. He also made his only All-Star appearance that season. He pitched out of the bullpen all year in 1991, posting a 4.33 ERA in 68.2 innings over 42 games (one start). Despite being with the team during two playoff seasons, he did not appear in a postseason game. In fact, Heaton didn’t pitch in the playoffs once in his 12-year career. In 1992 the Pirates traded him during spring training to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Kirk Gibson. Heaton played in the majors until July 1993, seeing time with the Royals, Milwaukee Brewers (one inning in 1992) and the 1993 New York Yankees. He went 3-1, 4.17 in 41 innings over 31 games with the Royals, before throwing a shutout appearance with the Brewers. The Royals released him on  July 30th and he signed with Milwaukee 13 days later. For the 1993 Yankees, he had a 6.00 ERA in 27 innings over 18 games before being released in July. In 382 career appearances (202 starts) and 1,507 innings, he went 80-96, 4.37, with 22 complete games, six shutouts and ten saves. With the Pirates, he went 21-19, 3.46 in 362 innings.

Ron Wotus, infielder for the 1983-84 Pirates. He was a 16th round draft pick of the Pirates in the 1979 amateur draft, selected out of the best high school name ever, Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticut. Wotus didn’t hit much his first two years in the minors, but he turned into a prospect in 1981. He debuted in pro ball with the Gulf Coast League Pirates, where he hit .272 in 40 games, with a .692 OPS. He also got in eight games with Salem of the Class-A Carolina League that year. In 1980, he spent the year with Shelby of the Class-A South Atlantic League, hitting .228 in 45 games, with a .584 OPS. Wotus split the 1981 season between two Carolina League teams, playing for Alexandria and Hagerstown. He hit .283  that year in 134 games, with 28 extra-base hits, 63 walks, 63 RBIs and 72 runs scored. He improved upon those overall stats the next season, splitting the year between Double-A Buffalo of the Eastern League (86 games) and Triple-A Portland of the Pacific Coast League (42 games). In 128 games over the two levels, he hit .296 with 77 runs, 19 doubles, 11 homers, 62 RBIs and an .809 OPS. In 1983, Wotus hit .301 in Triple-A (Pirates switched affiliates to Hawaii of the PCL), with 28 doubles, ten homers, 62 RBIs, 63 walks and 94 runs scored in 125 games.

Wotus got a September call-up for the 1983 Pirates. In five games off the bench, he went 0-for-3 at the plate. He finished two games on defense at shortstop and another at second base after coming in as a pinch-runner. He started back in Hawaii in 1984, then got a late June recall after Rafael Belliard fractured his fibula. Wotus remained with the team through the end of the season, but received very little playing time. At one point he went 34 games without an at-bat, getting into just three games as a late inning defensive replacement during that time. Wotus ended up playing 27 games, hitting .218 in 64 plate appearances. The Pirates went 75-87 in 1984, but they managed to go 10-5 during the 15 games started by Wotus. His chances of making it back to the majors after 1984 took a serious hit during Spring Training when a shoulder injury limited him to just 37 games in Double-A (Nashua of the Eastern League), where he hit just .186, with a .570 OPS. He played in the minors with the Pirates through the end of 1986, hitting .315 in 125 games for Hawaii during that final year. After leaving the Pirates, Wotus spent 1987 in Triple-A with the Kansas City Royals, then the 1988-89 seasons were spent with the San Francisco Giants in Triple-A. After his playing days were over, he managed for seven seasons in the minors with the Giants, starting just two years after his final game as a player. He became a Major League coach for the Giants in 1998 and he was at the helm of the Giants briefly during the 2006 season. Wotus also served as their manager for a few games during the 2016-17 seasons. He served as the Giants bench coach until 2017, and then their third base coach for the 2018-21 seasons. He decided in 2022 to take a lesser role in the system.

Jesse Jefferson, pitcher for the Pirates on October 3, 1980. He was a fourth round draft pick in 1968 by the Baltimore Orioles at 19 years old out of Carver HS in Virginia. He struggled during each of his first two seasons of pro ball, starting with Bluefield of the short-season Appalachian League in 1968, where he went 3-7, 5.09 in 69 innings, with 66 walks and 99 strikeouts. In 1969, he posted an 0-7, 7.02 record, while spending almost all of the season back in Bluefield. In 41 innings, he had 59 walks and 63 strikeouts. He had an 8-16 record in the Class-A California League with Stockton in 1970, though that came with a nice 3.67 ERA in 157 innings. He had 123 walks and 177 strikeouts that year. Jefferson moved up to Double-A the next year with Dallas-Fort Worth of the Dixie Association, where he continued to improve, going 12-11, 3.45 in 172 innings over 27 starts. While his strikeout rate dropped with 150 on the season, he also cut his walk rate down to 109 for the year, 5.7 per nine innings, which was easily his best mark.

Jefferson split the 1972 season between Double-A (Asheville of the Southern League) and Triple-A, doing much better at the higher level with Rochester of the International League. He had a 3.30 ERA in 71 innings with Asheville, then went 6-3, 2.45 in 103 innings over 17 starts after being promoted. On the year, he had 101 walks and 121 strikeouts in 174 innings. He was back at Rochester to start 1973, before debuting in the majors in late June after ten starts. He went 6-5, 4.11 in 100.2 innings over 15 starts and three relief appearances as a rookie with the Orioles. The next year he saw limited work, getting some spot starts and long relief appearances, amounting to 57.1 innings and a 4.40 ERA over 20 games (two starts). Jefferson had a 7-5 record through his first two seasons, but by the time he joined the Pirates six years later, he had a career record of 36-77 in 210 games. The Orioles traded him to the Chicago White Sox in June of 1975 and he struggled with his new team. In his 1 1/2 seasons in Chicago, he went 7-14, 6.35 in 170 innings. That 1975 season saw the control issues return, as he combined between Baltimore and Chicago to go 5-11, 4.92 in 115.1 innings, with 102 walks and 71 strikeouts. In 1976, Jefferson had a 2-5, 8.52 record in 62.1 innings, making nine starts and ten relief appearances. After the 1976 season, the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the Expansion Draft.

Jefferson was a regular in the Toronto rotation during his first two years with the team, posting a 4.31 ERA in 217 innings in 1977, as the Blue Jays went 54-107 in their inaugural season. His record was in line with the team, finishing 9-17 in his 33 starts. He had a career high 114 strikeouts that year, the only season he topped the century mark in the majors. That year was followed by a 7-16, 4.38 record in 211.2 innings in 1978. His results were in a decline the next season and he got moved to the bullpen. Jefferson had a 2-10 record and a 5.51 ERA in 116 innings in 1979, making ten starts and 24 relief appearances. That was followed by a 4-13, 5.47 record in 121.2 innings in 1980, with 18 starts and 11 relief outings. In four years in Toronto, he went a combined 22-56 with a 4.75 ERA. The Blue Jays put him on waivers late in 1980, where he was picked up by the Pirates on September 11, 1980. He pitched just one game for Pittsburgh, a start on October 3rd. He gave up one run over 6.2 innings and picked up the win. The Pirates allowed him to leave via free agency once the season ended and he played just one more year in the majors with the California Angels, where he went 2-4, 3.62 in 77 innings, while pitching mostly in relief. He continued to pitch in pro ball until 1984, spending the next three years in Mexico, with a brief stint back with the Angels in Triple-A during the 1983 season. In his big league career, he was 39-81, 4.81 in 1,085.2 innings. He made 144 starts, 93 relief appearances, and he had 25 complete games, four shutouts and one save.

Aubrey Epps, catcher for the Pirates on September 29, 1935. He had a nine-season minor league career, hitting .290 in 944 games, but his big league career lasted just one game. The Pirates let him catch the last game of the 1935 season, which was also the second game of a doubleheader. He had an amazing debut at the plate, collecting three hits and driving in three runs, but he was just the opposite in the field. He allowed three stolen bases on three attempts and committed two errors, as the Pirates lost by a 9-6 score. You would assume that someone who played one big league game didn’t spend a lot of time with the team, but that’s not true at all here. He debuted in pro ball at 21 years old in 1933 with 30 games for Birmingham of the Class-A Southern Association and six games for Longview of the Class-C Dixie League. He batted .245 with seven extra-base hits that year. The Pirates originally acquired him in September of 1934, after he hit .301 with 24 doubles, 11 triples and three homers in 152 games for Birmingham. Epps went to Spring Training in 1935 with the Pirates, but he was limited due to a mid-March hand injury. He was sent to Birmingham for more seasoning after manager Pie Traynor decided two days before Opening Day that more minor league seasoning would be better for him than serving as the third-string catcher. The Pirates called him to the majors on August 1, 1935, 59 days before he actually got into the lineup.

During the 1935-36 off-season, Epps came down with a very bad case of pneumonia, which resulted in him losing 32 pounds over the winter. He made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1936, though he was the fourth catcher at the time, and only lasted 18 days before being sent to Scranton of the Class-A New York-Penn League for the rest of the season. He batted .332 in 111 games that year, with 22 doubles, eight triples and three homers. In 1937, he won an Opening Day job again and lasted with the club until May 15th before being sold to Memphis of the American Association, officially ending his time with the club. His actual time spent on the Major League roster was 103 days, but he played one game. He batted .259 with 18 extra-base hits in 86 games for Memphis in 1937, then dropped down to Jackson of the Class-B Southeastern League in 1938, where he hit .287 in 142 games, with 39 doubles, 11 homers and 78 RBIs. He returned to Memphis in 1939 and hit .301 in 115 games. Epps spent most of his last two seasons in pro ball (1940-41) in Double-A, the highest level of the minors at the time. He moved to the outfield during his final year. He then served in the military after his playing days ended. We posted an Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates article on Epps here.

Bill Brenzel, catcher for the 1932 Pirates. He played five season in the minors before the Pirates gave him his first chance at the big leagues to start the 1932 season. Brenzel debuted in pro ball at 17 years old, playing briefly in the Pacific Coast League in 1927, which was just a small step down from big league competition at the time. It was an incredibly advanced league for someone his age. He ended up playing in the PCL in each of his first five seasons of pro ball, slowly improving until he had a strong showing during the 1930 season. Brenzel played briefly in the Utah-Idaho League in 1927, to go along with his brief time with Mission of the PCL. In 1928, he spent the year hitting .233 in 35 games with Mission, and hitting .279 in 24 games with Idaho Falls of the Utah-Idaho League. In 1929, he spent the entire year with Mission, though current stats only credit him with 81 at-bats in 83 games. He got more plate time in 1930 and responded by hitting .307 with nine doubles and four homers in 84 games. Brenzel saw even more playing time in 1931, resulting in a .284 average and 24 extra-base hits in 109 games for Mission of the PCL. The Pirates announced his purchase on August 3, 1931, noting that he came highly recommended from their former scout Joe Devine, who was the manager for Mission. It was said that Brenzel would only join the Pirates in 1931 if it was an emergency situation, otherwise he would report during Spring Training in 1932. Local papers reported that the purchase price was $50,000 plus a player to be named later, with some sources saying that Mission was after young first baseman Gus Suhr. Luckily for the Pirates, they didn’t part with Suhr, who some consider the best first baseman in team history.

Brenzel played nine games for the 1932 Pirates. He made six starts and the Pirates lost all six of those games. He had just one base hit in 24 at bats, an RBI double. He was forced into action in early May with starting/backup catchers Earl Grace and Hal Finney both out of action. For a short time, Brenzel was the only healthy catcher, and his backup was said to be either manager George Gibson, who last caught in the majors in 1918, or coach Grover Hartley, who was 43 years old, but only two years removed from his last big league game. Brenzel started five games in a row, then the Pirates were off five days in a row, mostly due to the weather. When they resumed play on May 15th, Earl Grace was back and Brenzel never played again. On May 21st, the Pirates acquired minor league catcher Tom Padden from Newark of the International League and Brenzel was sent to Newark in his place, though the Pirates still held his rights. Pittsburgh sold his contract to San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League on July 4, 1932, officially ending his time with the Pirates. Brenzel hit just .221 in 22 games with Newark, followed by a .295 average in 55 games with San Francisco. He then played for Kansas City of the American Association in 1933 and 1934 before coming back to the majors in September of 1934 after hitting .284 in 113 games that year. He hit .216 in 15 games for the 1934 Cleveland Indians, then had a .218 average in 52 games for the 1935 Indians. Brenzel returned to the minors for another nine seasons, retiring from playing after the 1946 season. He played the 1936-37 seasons for Milwaukee of the Double-A American Association, then joined Hollywood of the PCL and stayed there for six full seasons. After not playing during the 1944-45 seasons, he appeared briefly for Pocatello of the Class-C Pioneer League in 1946. He also managed in the minors for three years, including Pocatello in 1946, and he was a longtime scout.

Ed Phelps, catcher for the 1902-04 and 1906-08 Pirates. He spent five seasons in the minors before getting his first shot at the majors with the 1902 Pirates as a September call-up. His career started at 19 years old in 1898 in Class-F ball for Danbury of the Connecticut State League. The next season saw him jump to the Class-A Eastern League, where he remained until his big league debut. He played Springfield in 1899, Springfield, Montreal and Rochester in 1900, and Rochester during the 1901-02 seasons. His stats are limited during that time period, but we know that he hit .248 in 86 games in 1899, with 45 runs, 14 extra-base hits and 13 steals. In 1901, he hit .290 in 93 games, with 18 extra-base hits. Before joining the Pirates, he was hitting .255 in 91 games in 1902. The Pirates purchased Phelps from Rochester on August 26, 1902, in what was a controversial signing at the time. The owner of Rochester apparently made a verbal agreement to sell Phelps at the end of the Eastern League season, which was one week later, to the National League Boston Beaneaters (Braves). Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss swooped in and purchased his contract, which didn’t sit well with the Boston management, who had no idea of the purchase until it was announced by the league.

Phelps hit .213 with a .513 OPS in 18 games for Pittsburgh in 1902. In 1903 the Pirates won the National League pennant for a third time in a row and he split the catching duties with Harry Smith. Phelps hit .282 with 32 runs, 12 extra-base hits and 31 RBIs in 81 games that year, then batted .231 in the World Series, getting into all eight games. His .980 fielding percentage was the second best for all NL catchers. In 1904 he caught a career high 91 games, hitting .242 with 29 runs, 28 RBIs, and just eight extra-base hits. The Pirates traded Phelps to the Cincinnati Reds in February of 1905 in exchange for veteran catcher Heinie Peitz. Phelps hit .231 in 44 games for the 1905 Reds, finishing with five doubles, three triples and no homers for the second straight season, except he had 146 fewer at-bats during the 1905 season. He played with Cincinnati until May of 1906, when the Pirates purchased his contract and had him back up George Gibson for three seasons. Phelps played a total of 120 games over that stretch, with Gibson doing the bulk of the catching. Just 82 of those 120 games came as the starting catcher.

Phelps had a .275 average and a .776 OPS in 12 games with the 1906 Reds before rejoining the Pirates. After joining Pittsburgh, he hit .237 in 43 games over the rest of the season. He also played 43 games for the 1907 Pirates, hitting .212 with one extra-base hit (a double) all year. During the 1908 season, he hit .234 in 34 games, though he batted just 68 times all year. In 313 games with the Pirates over six seasons, Phelps was a .247 hitter with two homers and 100 RBIs. He was released by the Pirates on January 6, 1909. He played in the majors until 1913, seeing time with the 1909-10 St Louis Cardinals and 1912-13 Brooklyn Dodgers/Superbas. The 1909 season was the only time he played more than 100 games (104) in a season, though he saw plenty of time as a pinch-hitter that year. He hit .248 that season, setting career highs with 43 runs, 13 doubles and 39 walks. In 1910, he batted .263 in 93 games for the Cardinals, with 25 runs, 37 RBIs and 36 walks. He had just six extra-base hits (four doubles and two triples) all year. Phelps spent the 1911 season in the minors with Toronto of the Class-A Eastern League, then played 55 games for Brooklyn in 1912, hitting .288 with 23 RBIs in 111 at-bats. His last season in the majors saw him bat just 19 times in 15 games. His pro career finished in the minors with Albany of the Class-B New York State League in 1914-15, and Sioux City of the Class-A Western League for 18 games in 1915. He was a player-manager during the 1914 season. Phelps hit a total of three homers in 2,096 plate appearances over 11 seasons in the majors, and two of those were inside-the-park homers. He had two seasons in the minors in which he hit four homers. During the 1903 season, Phelps caught 56 straight scoreless innings, which is a Pirates record that was tied in 2015 by Francisco Cervelli. Phelps had the middle name Jaykill, which as you might expect, makes him unique in Major League history.