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

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

The Transactions

On this date in 1975, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed pitched Sam McDowell as a free agent. The 32-year-old was a Pittsburgh native, who signed 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. He 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 the 1972 season, 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, then 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 start) for the Pirates. 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 of those games were as a pinch-hitter. The 25-year-old spent nearly all of 1972 in Triple-A, where he hit .283 in 74 games, with 12 homers, 64 walks and a .917 OPS. He was a September call-up for the Pirates that year, but was used just once as a pinch-hitter for the entire final month of the season. 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. He spent most of the 1974 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, before getting called to the majors in September. In six relief appearances for the 1973 Pirates, he had a 3.00 ERA in 12 innings. The Pirates traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1973 season for catcher/first baseman Pete Koegel. Neither Zachary nor Koegel appeared in the majors after the trade. The Sands/Zachary deal was basically a wash, though neither player hurt his new team. Sands had 0.4 WAR after the trade. Zachary had 0.2 WAR for the Pirates.

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, where he hit .210 in 45 games, with two doubles, four triples, zero homers, 11 RBIs, 12 steals and a .570 OPS. He split the 2011 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, 15 RBIs, 31 steals, 37 walks, 28 strikeouts and a .794 OPS. His OPS was 101 points higher at the lower level. Difo spent all of 2012 back in the Gulf Coast League, batting .263 in 54 games, with 33 runs, ten extra-base hits, 13 RBIs, 19 steals, 34 walks and a .703 OPS. He split the 2013 season between four levels, including the Gulf Coast League again. He made it up to High-A ball for Potomac of the Carolina League, after a brief stop with Hagerstown of the Low-A South Atlantic League. He played just 61 games total that year, 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. He had 30 runs, 15 extra-base hits, 21 RBIs, nine steals and a .644 OPS. Difo spent 2014 with Hagerstown, 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.

Difo played 19 games back with Potomac in 2015, while spending 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, 53 RBIs, a .738 OPS and 30 steals in 32 attempts. He played 15 games with the Nationals that year, though he saw limited time at the plate, going 2-for-11, with two singles and a run scored. He played 104 games with Harrisburg in 2016, where he had a .259 average, with 59 runs, 24 extra-base hits, 41 RBIs, a .672 OPS and 28 steals in 39 attempts. Difo made his second trip to the majors for one month, then back to Harrisburg for a very brief stop. He also had one Triple-A game mixed in, before he returned to the majors in September. He hit .276/.364/.379 in 31 games for the 2016 Nationals, with 14 runs and seven RBIs. He batted .333 over 14 games of winter ball in the Dominican during the 2016-17 off-season. He then played almost all of 2017 in the majors, with just ten games for Syracuse of the Triple-A International League in the middle of June. Difo hit .271 that year in 124 big league games, with 47 runs, 19 extra-base hits, 21 RBIs, a .690 OPS and ten steals in 11 attempts. He batted .317/.375/.446 over 26 games that winter in the Dominican, then spent the entire 2018 season in the majors. He .230 in 148 games for the 2018 Nationals, with 55 runs, 28 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs and ten steals. He finished with a .649 OPS. He spent half of the 2019 season in the minors, and the other half hitting .252/.315/.313 in 43 games for the Nationals. He had a .300 average and an .807 OPS that year in 61 games with Fresno of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Difo saw very limited big league time during the shortened 2020 season, going 1-for-14 with three walks in 12 games, before becoming a free agent at the end of the year. He struggled through winter ball in the Dominican during that 2020-21 off-season with a .545 OPS in 22 games., then signed a minor league deal with the Pirates in January of 2021. He ended up spending most of the 2021 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 he 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. He spent most of the 2022 season with Reno of the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .269/.312/.398 in 72 games. He played three games for the Diamondbacks in September, going 0-for-6 at the plate. Difo signed a free agent deal with the New York Yankees for the 2023 season. He played winter ball in the Dominican during the 2022-23 off-season, where he hit just .197/.234/.279 in 17 games. Through his first eight seasons in the majors, he is hitting .250 in 492 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 93 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 and a 1.31 WHIP 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 at the 1993 trading deadline, in exchange for pitcher Stan Belinda. The Royals had him make 16 starts at High-A Wilmington of the Carolina League and another six starts for Memphis of the Double-A Southern League before the deal. The Pirates assigned him to 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 and a 1.30 WHIP. After just six minor league starts through mid-May of 1994, the Pirates called him up and placed him in the starting rotation. He made three starts in Carolina and three for Buffalo of the Triple-A American Association, combining for a 1.49 ERA, 42 strikeouts and a 0.76 WHIP in 42.1 innings.  He made 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 and a 1.30 WHIP during his rookie season. He had a 7.48 ERA through June 17, 1995, 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 and a 1.83 WHIP in 14 starts. Despite the season-long slump, he was still a September call-up. He had a 2.60 ERA in 17.1 innings over ten appearances (one start) during 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 end the year. He finished with a 3.99 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP and 94 strikeouts in 142 innings. The Pirates went 79-83 during the 1997 season, staying in the pennant race until the last week of the schedule. 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 a 1.30 WHIP over 188.1 innings, while accumulating 160 strikeouts. He had a better ERA in 1998 than the year before, but he went just 8-14, 4.11 in 28 starts. He had 138 strikeouts and a 1.30 WHIP in 170.1 innings that year. On December 14, 1998 he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for outfielder Brant Brown. He ended up posting a 1.30 WHIP in four of his five seasons with the Pirates.

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 and a 1.34 WHIP over 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, with a 1.20 WHIP, while setting career highs with 192 strikeouts and six complete games. The next season was his career year, making the Cubs look smart for signing him to an extension ahead of time. He had a 20-6, 3.80 record, a 1.15 WHIP and 148 strikeouts over 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 surgery in 2004, pitching another five seasons in the majors, while splitting his time between the New York Yankees (2004), Philadelphia Phillies (2005-07) and back to the Cubs for the 2008 season.

Lieber went 14-8, 4.33 in 176.2 innings over 27 start in 2004, during his one healthy season with the Yankees. He had a 1.32 WHIP and 102 strikeouts, while allowing more homers (20) than walks (18).  He then had a 17-13, 4.20 record, 141 strikeouts and a 1.21 WHIP in his first season with Philadelphia. He pitched 218.1 innings that year, while leading the league with 35 starts. He went 9-11, 4.93, with 100 strikeouts and a 1.31 WHIP in 168 innings over 27 starts during the 2006 season. Lieber had a 3-6, 4.73 record in 78 innings through late June of 2008 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. He pitched 401 games, with 327 starts, 25 complete games and five shutouts. Lieber finished with 1,553 strikeouts and a 1.28 WHIP.

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, 114 strikeouts and a 1.30 WHIP. He made 12 starts and 39 relief appearances. The Mets released him at the end of the season, then he signed with the Los Angeles Angels on December 2, 2010. He went 4-3, 3.44 in 68 innings over 61 relief appearances in 2011, with 52 strikeouts and a 1.22 WHIP. 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, 41 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP in 42 innings over 42 appearances. He posted an 8.64 ERA in 8.1 innings over nine relief appearances for the Pirates during the final six weeks of the 2012 season. He was released in October of 2012, then signed with the Chicago Cubs, where he made the final three appearances of his big league career during the 2013 season, allowing two runs in three innings. 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. Between Iowa (Cubs) and Colorado Springs (Rockies) of the Pacific Coast League in 2013, Takahashi had a 4.25 ERA, 63 strikeouts and a 1.42 WHIP in 53 innings.

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, finishing with 102 strikeouts and a 1.25 WHIP. He had a 9-9, 3.94 record over 134.2 innings in 2001, with 99 strikeouts and a 1.32 WHIP. Once again he completed three of 23 starts, this time with one shutout and seven relief appearances. He posted a 10-4, 3.09 record and a 1.11 WHIP over 163.1 innings in 2002, recording a career high of 145 strikeouts. He made 23 starts for the third year in a row. His work was somewhat limited over the next two seasons, going 4-4, 3.84, with a 1.22 WHIP over 86.2 innings in 2003. That was followed by a 5-10, 5.44 record and a 1.46 WHIP in 91 innings over 16 starts during the 2004 season. Takahashi had an 8-12, 4.47 record in 163 innings, with 135 strikeouts and a 1.34 WHIP 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, 51 strikeouts and a 1.37 WHIP. He had four starts and 31 relief appearances.

Takahashi had a 14-4, 2.75 record, a 1.17 WHIP and 141 strikeouts over 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, with 94 strikeouts and a 1.29 WHIP. He also pitched briefly in the lower level Japan Eastern League. Before going to the United States, he went 10-6, 2.94 in 144 innings over 25 starts in 2009, with a .127 WHIP and 126 strikeouts. After leaving the U.S. following the 2013 season, Takahashi pitched two more seasons in Japan, splitting that time between the Central and Eastern Leagues. He combined to go 3-6 3.91 over 76 innings during the 2014 season. That was followed by a 3-2, 2.40 record over 56.1 innings in 2015, wrapping up his career at 40 years old.. He had a 14-12, 3.99 record, 221 strikeouts and a 1.27 WHIP over 243.1 innings during his four seasons in the U.S. He had an 86-74, 3.67 record over 12 seasons in Japan, where he pitched 1,431.1 innings. Takahashi threw a large assortment of pitches, including a screwball.

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