When the Yanks traded Roberto Kelly


It’s hard to believe that 2009 marked the first time since Paul O’Neill patrolled right field that the Yanks won a World Series. Since the era of O’Neill, the Yanks tried a variety of players in right. Raul Mondesi got his crack, and Gary Sheffield and Bobby Abreu held down the three-hole in the lineup for a few years. Now, the spot is Nick Swisher‘s for the foreseeable future, and we fondly remember O’Neill.

It wasn’t always like that though. When Paul O’Neill first arrived in the Bronx, fans and commentators responded skeptically. He was some overhyped 29-year-old from Cincinnati who was more known for his temper than for his bat. He could never hit as well as he was supposed to, and the Yanks gave up a one-time untouchable player to get him.

The trade come down on November 3, 1992. The Yankees, a few weeks removed from a fourth place, 76-86 finish, were looking for a big lefty bat, and the team needed some pitching too. So they traded Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill. At the time, media coverage focused around what the Yanks gave up rather than what they got back. “The Yankees,” Jack Curry wrote, “scrapped their glorious plans involving Roberto Kelly yesterday and traded their once-untouchable outfielder to the Cincinnati Reds for power-hitting right fielder Paul O’Neill.” Kelly was “someone they would not trade because of his potential to be their next superstar.”

In O’Neill, the Yanks had potential, but Murray Chass wondered if they had anything else. Chass saw the troubles and the way Steinbrenner would grate on O’Neill. He didn’t know if the temperamental lefty could survive the wrath of the Boss after suffering through Lou Piniella while with the Reds.

Meanwhile, with Paul in the fold, speculation about the Yanks’ impending moves grew louder and louder. Curry wondered if the team would pursue Barry Bonds, and David Cone, Jim Abbott and Greg Swindell were rumored to be on the team’s wishlist as well. My, how times have changed.

In the end, the Yanks were the clear winners of that trade. O’Neill played 1254 games in the Bronx over the next nine years, and his arrival signaled the start of a smarter approach to team-building. Playing next to Bernie Williams and hitting in front of him, O’Neill went on to put up a .303/.377/.492 with 185 home runs in the Bronx, and outside of an ill-fated two-week stint by LaTroy Hawkins, no one has worn 21 since he did. As for Roberto Kelly, he wasn’t as lucky. The one-time future superstar played just 699 over the last few years of his career and hit .299/.342/.446. He retired after a short return to the Bronx in 2000 and now serves as the first base coach for the Giants.

In 1992, the Yankees took a chance on a 29-year-old, and only the water coolers lived to regret it.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky

Categories : Days of Yore


  1. YankeeJosh says:

    “O’Neill went on to put up a .303/.377/.492 with 185 home runs in the Bronx, and no one has worn 21 since he did.”

    Blocking out LaTroy Hawkins? Man, Yankees fans unfairly let him have it for trying to wear #21 to honor Roberto Clemente.

  2. Hughesus Cristo says:

    Shades of Granderson?

  3. mustang says:

    The funny part is that if RAB was around then I would almost guarantee that most would be against that trade.
    It was a Yankees 80’s move of trading a young talent player for an older player with question markers. I remember hating the trade and saying to myself same old same old yanks.

    • trading a young talent player for an older player with question markers

      Roberto Kelly is only 19 months younger than O’Neill. It was more along the lines of trading one still-young player who never fulfilled his potential for another. Plus, O’Neill had two years left on his contract while Kelly didn’t. It would been an eyebrow-raising move simply for the why of it. At the time, it was tough to see what either team got out of it.

      • mustang says:

        You guys would have hated it. Kelly was home grown an All-Star on an otherwise boring ass team. While O’Neil was a hot head who was always in the dog house with the Reds because he couldn’t live up to what they and then manager Lou wanted.

        • Jason says:

          No offense, Mustang, but I think you’re missing one of the points of Ben’s post. At the time, everyone hated it, some for good reason and others for bad ones. Their age difference doesn’t matter, but their potential did. I remember that trade well, and few people in New York thought kindly of it until Paul O’Neill showed us what he could do in 1993.

          • mustang says:

            I see Ben’s point, but my point is that I don’t think many people here would have loved or made that trade regardless potential.

            • whozat says:

              Depends. It’s also possible that if one went back and looked at Kelly and Oneill like we look at young players now, we might see that Kelly was more hype than substance and that there was reason to expect ONeill to break out in NY.

              • mustang says:

                Fair enough.

              • mustang says:

                “that there was reason to expect ONeill to break out in NY.”

                Not by the statistics. It was good scouting and great insight by Gene Michael and crew. With a little bit of luck I’m sure.

                • mustang says:

                  And by the age-o-meter here at RAB when O’Neil was trade here at the old age of 30 he was one year away from the:
                  ” wrong side of an offensive player’s peak performance curve.”:

    • Bo says:

      RAB and the posters here would have raged and raged at that trade. “homegrown talent gone!” “prospects are gold” etc etc

      They raged at a short season player being traded for a 200+ inn workhorse who finished 4th in the CY vote!

      • Don’t conflate me, Joe and Mike with the commenters. The three of us weren’t heartbroken to see Arodys Vizcaino traded. Yeah, he has potential, but you can’t get something back in return without giving up anything. Shockingly, Bo, your comment is both revisionist history and wrong.

  4. BigBlueAL says:

    That off-season also included the signings of Jimmy Key and Wade Boggs also correct?? Along with Spike Owen too I believe but he sucked.

  5. Salty Buggah says:

    Hah, that picture’s caption says “RED SOX YANKEES.”

  6. AndrewYF says:

    Look at the top-5 MVP vote-getters in 1994.

    Can I say holy shitballs?

  7. iYankees says:

    Great piece, Ben. I look at O’Neill’s numbers today and am amazed yet pleased that his bat came around with the Yankees. Prior to that, it really wasn’t pretty. Not sure if that was a product of where he hit in the lineup, his team, etc.

    • Salty Buggah says:



      • iYankees says:

        I won’t lie, I’ve thought about it… But, I’m biased, so no, lol.

        • CountryClub says:

          Nah, it was because Sweet Lou wanted Paul to pull everything. He saw that stroke and dreamed of 30 HR’s per year. Plus, Paul said the pressure of playing in his home town got to him. When he came to NY, Mattingly schooled him in the ways of hitting to all fields. Paul talks very highly of Don because of it.

          Once he stopped becoming HR/pull happy, he became a well rounded line drive machine.

          • Steve H says:

            Well if any player turns their career around like O’neil did, they are going to come up with a litany of reasons that aren’t steroids related, even if it was steroids related. Just sayin.

            • CountryClub says:

              True. Except with him you could actually see the different approach at the plate. Plus, it’s not like he started hitting 40 dingers a year…and he was in a HR friendly park for lefties.

  8. Mo says:

    Great piece Ben. Thanks for putting it together.
    Retire #21

  9. Tony says:

    Loved O’neil. However I wish the Yankees would “honor” #’s & not retire them. I like the idea of a young kid trying to make his # proud. Say a hot shot short stop in 10 yrs wants to wear 2 – why not. At this pace in a 100 yrs they’ll have to wear triple digits.

  10. Richard Deegan says:

    Loved Paul even before the deal for him, but back then we was in a very small minority.
    Another very similar situation was trading the untouchable future HOFer Austin Montero Vizcayo (a.k.a. Charlie Spikes) for Graig Nettles. Oh, the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the press at losing the immortal Spikes for a useless has-been/never-was.
    Can anyone picture the Yanks w/o Nettles?

  11. Bo says:

    It’s a mortal lock that 21 will be retired one day.

    Hes way too popular with the fans.

    • Steve H says:

      If they retire #21, they’ll have to retire about 50 more and run out.

      • binky the klown says:

        Really? Give me 50 Yankees players who put up Paulie’s numbers. Ya might find 10 or so who reflect Paulie’ success, but these very good pinstripe heroes deserve some honor and respect, too. Plus, I’m eagerly anticipating the day I see a line-up filled with players wearing three digits. I call #125!

  12. CapitalT says:

    Buster Olney’s piece on O’neil in the Last Night of the Dynasty was well worth the read.

    Spoiler alert. The book ends horribly


    At the time of the Roberto/Paulie trade Yankee fans were outraged. Paul O’Neil


    At the time of the Roberto/Paulie trade Yankee fans were outraged. Paul O’Neil then became a Yankee Legend…….

  15. Pete says:

    1992 Counts as ‘yore’? That was my freshman year of college!


  16. V says:

    At the time of the Roberto/Paulie trade Yankee fans were outraged. Paul O’Neil then became a Yankee Legend and then in 2010 cured cancer, global warming, and built a livable biodome on the moon.

    • binky the klown says:

      Global warming? Oh, you mean ManBearPig… be carful he keeps changing his appearance from cooling to warming that we need to manipulate the data and…{looks around}… and lie.


      -Al Gore

  17. RKelly39 says:

    I’m still outraged!

  18. RKelly39 says:

    Long live Roberto Kelly!!

  19. Jeff says:

    Brilliant trade. Kelly was unneeded with the superior Bernie Williams ready to go so essentially they traded a spare part for a franchise cornerstone.

  20. [...] how it all ended, we flashback again to the winter of 1992/1993. A few weeks ago, I explored the Roberto Kelly/Paul O’Neill trade, and today, we look at the circumstances surrounding Wade Boggs’ arrival in the [...]

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