This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 2nd, Jon Lieber, Pirates Sign Sudden Sam McDowell

Three Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date and two transactions of note.

The Transactions

On this date in 1975, the Pirates signed pitched Sam McDowell as a free agent. The 32-year-old was a Pittsburgh native, signing with the Cleveland Indians in 1960 right out of Central Catholic HS in Pittsburgh. He was one of the most intimidating pitchers of his time, possibly the hardest thrower of his day, who not only led the league in strikeouts five times, he also issued the most walks five times as well. In 11 seasons with Cleveland, he had a 122-109, 2.99 record with 2,159 strikeouts in 2,109.2 innings pitched. Prior to 1972, McDowell was traded to the San Francisco Giants, where injuries and off-field issues began to take their toll on his career. He moved on to the New York Yankees in the middle of 1973 and was released by them after the 1974 season. McDowell went 1-6, 4.69 in 1974, making seven starts and six relief appearances. He was a non-roster player in Spring Training for the Pirates in 1975 before he made the team as a reliever. He made 14 appearances, one as a starter, and he had a 2-1, 2.86 record in 34.2 innings before he was released in late June. That was the end of his playing career. He finished with 141 wins, a 3.17 ERA and 2,453 strikeouts.

On this date in 1973, the Pirates traded catcher Charlie Sands to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for pitcher Chris Zachary. Sands had been with the Pirates since October 1970, when he came over from the New York Yankees in a six-player deal involving all minor leaguers. He played 28 games for the Pirates in 1971, and all but three were as a pinch-hitter. The 25-year-old spent nearly all of 1972 in Triple-A, where he hit .283 with 12 homers and 64 walks in 74 games. He was a September call-up, but was used just once as a pinch-hitter the entire month. Zachary spent all of 1963 in the majors as a 19-year-old with no minor league experience. From 1964 until 1972, he played in the minors every season. He also appeared in the majors at some point during every one of those seasons, except 1968 and 1970. He set a career high with 25 appearances in 1972 with the Tigers, going 1-1, 1.41 in 38.1 innings.

Sands didn’t even get a chance to get comfortable in Detroit. He was traded to the California Angels just 17 days after this trade. He spent the year down in Triple-A, only getting a September call-up. In 1974 he spent most of the season with the Angels, playing a career high 43 games. After three games with the Oakland A’s in 1975, he finished his career in the minors one year later. Zachary went 14-7, 3.18 in 25 Triple-A starts for the Pirates in 1973. He was a September call-up, and in six relief appearances, he pitched 12 innings with a 3.00 ERA. After the season, the Pirates traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for catcher/first baseman Pete Koegel. Neither Zachary nor Koegel appeared in the majors after the trade.

The Players

Wilmer Difo, utility fielder for the 2021 Pirates. He was signed by the Washington Nationals out of the Dominican Republic at 18 years old in June of 2010. He debuted in the Dominican Summer League that year and hit .210 in 45 games, with two doubles, four triples, zero homer, 12 steals and a .570 OPS. In 2011, he split the season between the DSL (39 games) and the Gulf Coast League (25 games), combining to hit .288 in 64 games, with 41 runs, 17 extra-base hits, 31 steals, 37 walks and 28 strikeouts. His OPS was 101 points higher at the lower level. In 2012, Difo spent the entire year back in the Gulf Coast League, batting .263 in 54 games, with 33 runs, ten extra-base hits, 19 steals and 34 walks. He split the 2013 season between four levels, including the Gulf Coast League, and on up to High-A ball for Potomac of the Carolina League. He played just 61 games total, with a majority of the time coming with Auburn of the short-season New York-Penn League, where he hit just .217 in 33 games. He also finished the season with a .217 average, struggling at all four levels. In 2014, Difo spent the year with Hagerstown of the Low-A South Atlantic League, where he batted .315 in 136 games, with 91 runs, 31 doubles, seven triples, 14 homers, 90 RBIs and 49 steals in 58 attempts. He finished with an .831 OPS.

In 2015, Difo played 19 games back in Potomac, and spent the rest of the year with Double-A Harrisburg of the Eastern League. He combined to hit .286 in 106 games, with 61 runs, 28 doubles, six triples, five homers and 30 steals in 32 attempts. In 2016, he played 104 games with Harrisburg, hitting .259 with 59 runs, 24 extra-base hits, 41 RBIs and 28 steals in 39 attempts. That was followed by his first trip to the majors for one month, then back to Harrisburg for a very brief stop, with one Triple-A game mixed in before he returned to the majors in September. For the 2016 Nationals, he hit .276 in 31 games, with 14 runs and seven RBIs. He batted .333 in winter ball in the Dominican during the 2016-17 off-season, then played almost all of 2017 in the majors, with just ten games played for Triple-A Syracuse of the International League. Difo hit .271 that year in 124 big league games, with 47 runs, 19 extra-base hits, 21 RBIs and ten steals in 11 attempts. He batted .317 that winter in the Dominican, then spent the entire 2018 season in the majors, hitting .230 in 148 games, with 55 runs, 28 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs and ten steals. He finished with a .649 OPS. In 2019, he spent half of the season in the minors, and the other half hitting .252 in 43 games for the Nationals, posting a .628 OPS.

Difo saw very limited big league time during the shortened 2020 season, going 1-for-14 with three walks in 12 games. He became a free agent in October, struggled in winter ball in the Dominican that 2020-21 off-season, then signed a minor league deal with the Pirates in January of 2021. He ended up spending most of the season in the majors, hitting .269 in 116 games, with 25 runs, 14 extra-base hits, 24 RBIs and a .713 OPS. Difo started games at five different positions for the Pirates (2B/3B/CF/RF/SS) and even pitched twice in blowout games. He became a free agent after the season and signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks in March. Through his first seven seasons in the majors, he is hitting .252 in 489 games, with 158 runs, 69 extra-base hits, 103 RBIs and 24 steals in 29 attempts. Most of his big league time has come at second base, but he has also made 92 starts at shortstop and 42 starts at third base.

Jon Lieber, pitcher for the 1994-98 Pirates. He was originally a ninth round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1991 out of the University of South Alabama at 21 years old, but he decided to return to school and the move paid off. He was a second round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1992. Lieber had a 2.90 ERA in 62 innings after signing in 1992, splitting his time evenly between Eugene of the short-season Northwest League and Baseball City of the High-A Florida State League. He was putting up strong numbers through late July in 1993, before he came to the Pirates along with Dan Miceli in exchange for pitcher Stan Belinda at the 1993 trading deadline. The Royals had him make 16 starts at High-A Wilmington of the Carolina League and another six starts for Memphis of the Southern League before the deal. The Pirates assigned him to Double-A Carolina of the Southern League, where he had a 3.97 ERA in 34 innings over six starts to finish out the season. Lieber pitched a total of 169.2 in 1993, posting a 15-6, 3.45 record, with 134 strikeouts. After just six minor league starts in 1994, the Pirates called him up in mid-May and he went right into the starting rotation. He made three starts in Carolina and three for Triple-A Buffalo of the American Association, combining for a 1.49 ERA in 42.1 innings.  In 17 starts with the 1994 Pirates before the strike ended the season in early August, Lieber went 6-7, 3.73 in 108.2 innings, with 71 strikeouts. In 1995 he pitched poorly through June 17th, posting a 7.48 ERA, which got him a demotion to Triple-A (Pirates switched affiliates to Calgary of the Pacific Coast League). He pitched almost as bad there, with a 7.01 ERA in 14 starts. Despite the season-long slump, he was a September call-up, making ten appearances, one as a starter. He had a 2.60 ERA in 17.1 innings over the final month of 1995.

Lieber made the 1996 Pirates out of Spring Training as a reliever. Through July 7th, he had a 2-2, 4.21 record in 34 appearances. After that date, he switched to the starter role, going 7-2, 3.91 in 15 starts to finish the year. He finished with a 3.99 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 142 innings. In 1997, the Pirates went 79-83, staying in the pennant race until the last week of the season. Lieber was one of three pitchers (Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Cordova are the others) to win 11 games that year for the Pirates. He had an 11-14, 4.49 record and pitched 188.1 innings, while accumulating 160 strikeouts. In 1998, he had a better ERA than the year before, but he went just 8-14, 4.11 in 28 starts. He had 138 strikeouts in 170.1 innings that year. On December 14, 1998 he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for outfielder Brant Brown.

Lieber ended up pitching four years for the Cubs, though they were originally trading for just the two years remaining on his contact. He went 10-11, 4.07, with 186 strikeouts in 203.1 innings in 1999. With one year left before free agency, the Cubs agreed to a three-year deal with Lieber for $15,000,000 shortly after the 1999 season ended.  He responded well in that first season by leading the league with 35 starts and 251 innings. He went 12-11, 4.41 and set a career highs with 192 strikeouts and six complete games. The next season was his career year. He had a 20-6, 3.80 record in 232.1 innings in 2001, which led to a fourth place finish in the Cy Young voting and his only All-Star appearance. Lieber went 6-8, 3.70 in 141 innings over 21 starts in 2002, before getting injured in his start on August 1st, which ended his season. He became a free agent after the season and signed with the New York Yankees for two years, though he missed all of 2003 following Tommy John surgery. He would coming back from that in 2014 and pitched another five seasons in the majors, splitting his time between the New York Yankees (2004), Philadelphia Phillies (2005-07) and back to the Cubs for the 2008 season.

In 27 starts in 2004, Lieber went 14-8, 4.33 in 176.2 innings during his one healthy season with the Yankees. He then had a 17-13, 4.20 record in his first season with Philadelphia. He pitched 218.1 innings that year, while leading the league with 35 starts. In 2006, he went 9-11, 4.93 in 168 innings over 27 starts. Lieber had a 3-6, 4.73 record in 78 innings through late June when he ruptured a tendon in his right foot, which cost him the rest of the season. He became a free agent and signed with the Cubs for 2008, where he worked in relief, going 2-3, 4.05 in 46.2 innings over 26 appearances. Another foot injury cost him two months of that season, and limited him to one poor outing after July 10th, which ended up being his final game. On September 9th, four days after his final game, he was placed on the 60-day disabled list with the same foot strain injury. He finished his 14-year career with a 131-124, 4.27 record in 2,198 innings, which included his 38-47, 4.36 in 682.2 innings with the Pirates.

Hisanori Takahashi, pitcher for the 2012 Pirates. He spent the first ten years of his pro career pitching in Japan, before signing with the New York Mets for the 2010 season. As a 35-year-old rookie with the Mets, Takahashi went 10-6, 3.61 in 122 innings, with eight saves and 114 strikeouts. He made 12 starts and 39 relief appearances. The Mets released him at the end of the season and he signed with the Los Angeles Angels on December 2, 2010. In 2011, he went 4-3, 3.44 in 68 innings over 61 relief appearances. He was acquired by the Pirates in late August of 2012 from the Los Angeles Angels as a waiver pickup. At the time he was picked up by the Pirates, Takahashi had a 4.93 ERA in 42 innings over 42 appearances. In nine relief appearances for the Pirates over the final six weeks of the 2012 season, he posted an 8.64 ERA in 8.1 innings. He was released in October of 2012 and signed with the Chicago Cubs, where he made the final three appearances of his big league career during the 2013 season. While his final big league games were with the Cubs, he actually finished his time in the U.S. playing in Triple-A for the Colorado Rockies, who purchased his contract on June 22, 2013.

Takahashi didn’t reach the highest level in Japan (known as the Japan Central League) until he was 25 years old in 2000. He pitched his first ten seasons for the Yomiuri Giants, spending those first seven years in the rotation with Masumi Kuwata, who pitched for the 2007 Pirates. The two helped the Giants to the 2000 and 2002 Japan Series championship titles (that league’s version of winning the World Series). As a rookie in 2000, Takahashi went 9-6, 3.18 in 135.2 innings, with 23 starts and one relief appearance. He threw three complete games and two shutouts. In 2001, he had a 9-9, 3.94 record in 134.2 innings. Once again he completed three of 23 starts, this time with one shutout and seven relief appearances. In 2002, he posted a 10-4, 3.09 record in 163.1 innings, recording a career high of 145 strikeouts. For the third year in a row, he made 23 starts. His work was somewhat limited over the next two seasons, going 4-4, 3.84 in 86.2 innings in 2003 and 5-10, 5.44 in 91 innings over 16 starts in 2004. Takahashi had an 8-12, 4.47 record in 163 innings, with 135 strikeouts in 2005. He started 26 games, with four complete games and two shutouts. His numbers dropped off in 2006, as he moved into a relief role, going 2-6, 4.94 in 62 innings, with 15 saves. He had four starts and 31 relief appearances.

Takahashi had a 14-4, 2.75 record in a career high 186.2 innings in 2007, as he moved back into a starting role. The next year saw him struggle a bit, going 8-5, 4.13 in 122 innings, while also pitching briefly in the minors (Japan Eastern League). In 2009 before going to the United States, he went 10-6, 2.94 in 144 innings over 25 starts. After leaving the U.S. following the 2013 season, Takahashi pitched two more seasons in Japan, splitting that time between the minors and majors. He had a 3.99 ERA in 243.1 innings in his four seasons in the U.S., and an 86-74, 3.67 record in 12 seasons in Japan, where he pitched 1,431.1 innings. Takahashi threw a large assortment of pitches, including a screwball.