Nov
03

Past Trade Review: Paul O’Neill

By

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

It might be hard for the younger generation of fans to believe, but two decades ago the Yankees were a non-factor in the AL East, finishing no better than fourth in the then-seven team division from 1987 through 1992. They hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1981. Don Mattingly was a bonafide homegrown superstar, but Dave Righetti’s talent was being wasted in the bullpen, Ron Guidry was fading, and a numerous free agent signings and trades just didn’t work out. For every Dave Winfield there was an Andy Hawkins, for every Rickey Henderson a Tim Leary.

George Steinbrenner, who always dipped his toe deep into the baseball operations pool, was banned from day-to-day management of the team in late-July 1990 after paying Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Winfield. Gene Michael took over as general manager the very next month, and he and his front office staff went to work rebuilding the Yankees without The Boss interfering. They were patient with prospects, valued high-end pitching, and above all wanted batters that worked the count and wore pitchers down.

One of the team’s few established above-average players was centerfielder Roberto Kelly, who broke in during the 1987 season but didn’t grab hold of an every day job until two years later. He hit .284/.339/.426 from 1989 through 1991, increasing his homer output from nine to 15 to 20 during that time. Kelly rode a hot start (topped out at .361/.396/.514 in late-May) in 1992 to his first appearance in the All Star Game, though ironically enough that ended up being the worst full season of his career (98 OPS+, 0.8 bWAR) up to that point.

The then-28 year old Kelly was obviously a solid contributor for the Yanks, but his on-base percentage (just .325 from 1990-1992) wasn’t good enough for a guy that spent the majority of his time hitting in one of the top three spots of the batting order. Eighteen years ago today, Stick dealt Kelly to the Reds for a fellow 1992 All Star outfielder named Paul O’Neill and Single-A first base prospect Joe Deberry.

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

O’Neill was more than a year older than Kelly and relegated to an outfielder corner defensively, but it didn’t matter. He fit the grind-it-out philosophy, not only getting on base 34.4% of the time from 1989-1992, but he was also trending upwards. His IsoD (isolated discipline, or OBP-AVG, which measures a batter’s ability to get on base by a means other than a hit) went from .069 in 1990 to .090 in 1991 to .100 in 1992. O’Neill also brought World Series experience, though he wasn’t without his warts. The lefty swinger had plenty of trouble against southpaws, hitting .225/.279/.295 off them in 1992, and just .227/.278/.332 over the last three seasons.

O’Neill’s first season in New York was the best of his career up to that point, a .311/.367/.504 effort, career highs across the board. He was still hopeless against lefties though, hitting just .230/.279/.319 off them that year. The Yankees improved by a dozen wins from the previous season and finished second to the Blue Jays in the division. O’Neill managed to top his strong debut season with a career year in 1994, winning the batting title and hitting .359/.460/.603 with more walks (72) than strikeouts (56) for the first time in his career. As if someone flipped a switch, he hit .305/.439/.571 off lefties and went to his second All Star Game, finishing fifth in the MVP voting. The Yanks were robbed of their first playoff berth in more than a decade because of the strike though; at 70-43, they had the best record in the AL.

As the Yankees incorporated more and more young players onto their roster, O’Neill remained one of manager Buck Showalter’s stalwarts. His newfound level of production proved to be his true talent level, as O’Neill hit a whopping .317/.397/.517 during his first six years in pinstripes. He was the three-hole hitter the majority of the time during the team’s titles runs in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, usually protected by cleanup hitter Bernie Williams, the guy that replaced Kelly in centerfield after the trade.

All told, O’Neill hit .303/.377/.492 with 185 homers in his nine years with the Yanks, going to four All Star Games and finishing in the top 15 of the MVP voting four times as well. Steinbrenner, reinstated by the commissioner two years after being banned, dubbed him The Warrior, and fans fell head over heels in love with him for his style of play. O’Neill was famously hard on himself, throwing helmets and smashing water coolers whenever something went wrong, and if you took a gander at him in the outfielder between pitches or at-bats, you’d often catch him practicing his stance and swing with an invisible bat.

(AP Photo/ Pat Sullivan)

O’Neill’s Yankee career is full of far more memorable moments than I care to count, but two stick out to me. The first is pretty obvious, the “Paul O-Nei-ll clap clap clapclapclap” chant in the ninth inning of Game Five of the 2001 World Series, a grand send-off in his final game at Yankee Stadium. The second came back in 1996 (left), when he ran down a Luis Polonia line drive to record the final out of Game Five of that World Series, saving an extra-base hit in a game that ended 1-0. I’ll also never forget yelling at him through the TV to catch the final out of David Wells’ perfect game with two damn hands. Sheesh.

As for Kelly, he went on to be very productive for Cincinnati, hitting .313/.353/.447 for them before being traded to Atlanta for Deion Sanders during the 1994 season. He bounced around a bit the rest of his career, making stops with the Expos, Dodgers, Twins, Mariners, and Rangers before rejoining the Yankees in 2000, a 27 plate appearance finale to his career. He was certainly a quality player, just not at the same level of O’Neill. Deberry never played in the big leagues, topping out at Triple-A. He was out of baseball by 1998.

O’Neill’s 24.8 bWAR with New York is more than Kelly’s entire career (16.9, just 5.0 post-Yanks), but we don’t need any kind of advance stats or detailed analysis to call this trade a clear win for the Yankees. It’s arguably one the ten best trades in franchise history, maybe even top five. The Warrior is still a fan favorite and a semi-regular at Yankee Stadium to this day, showing up to Old Timer’s Day and calling games for the YES Network whenever he feels like getting out of Ohio.

Happy Paul O’Neill Trade Anniversary Day, I’m not sure any of us knew how important and beloved he’d become.

Categories : Days of Yore

78 Comments»

  1. Kiersten says:

    This may be my favorite RAB post ever.

    I love me some Paul O’Neill.

  2. Rob says:

    Why when I look at Jayson Werth do I see Paul O’Neill?

  3. Yank the Frank says:

    Paulie also had a bad hamstring on that Polonia catch which made it even more amazing.

  4. UWS says:

    Great player, terrible broadcaster.

    There, I said it.

  5. Clay Bellinger says:

    It’s hard not to smile when reading this post.

  6. CountryClub says:

    I like the 2 moments you picked. Another favorite has to be him getting the hustle double in the 9th to try and extend the 97 season.

  7. Mike HC says:

    Excellent post. It was great growing up watching Paul O’Neill. And now I like him in the booth too.

  8. A very risky gamble that worked out splendiferously.

  9. bonestock94 says:

    I love this guy. Grew up with a poster on the wall and autographed ball. One of my favorite memories was watching him hit a come from behind (either 2 or 3 run) homer at an early interleague yankees-mets game. Stadium went nuts.

  10. PhillyMatt says:

    My favorite Paul O’Neill moment had to be when he hit those two homeruns in one game to get the birthday card back for Kramer.

  11. MikeD says:

    I also wonder if the Yankees were a little unhappy with Roberto Kelly’s personality. When Bernie Williams was called up, Kelly apparently treated Bernie quite poorly, viewing him as a threat. Don Mattingly told Kelly to straighten out his attitude. I’m sure that didn’t help his view with Gene Michael and Buck Showalter, both of whom were looking to not only improve the Yankees OBP skills, but also remake the club house personality. Kelly was shipped out after Buck’s first year as a manager.

    • Mike HC says:

      Nice added perspective here. I was a little young to remember that time that well, just vaguely, so I don’t remember details like that from that time period.

    • CountryClub says:

      Is this true? Mel Hall gave Bernie a hard time, but I never heard of Kelly being involved.

      • MikeD says:

        Don’t know. I’m only mentioning what I remember reading about at the time.

        You are correct about Hall, and Mattingly had a talk with him too. He really gave Bernie a lot of trouble. I think in Kelly’s case it was more driven by concern he might lose his CF job. Hall outright attacked Bernie, calling him “Mr. Zero” anytime Bernie tried to speak. As we all know, Bernie Williams is a bit introspective and quiet. As a rookie, these characteristics would have been highlighted.

        No surprise that Hall was also shipped out after ’92. A totally bad personality, and while he could hit the ball, and had some HR power, he had zero plate discipline. Whenever I hear the name Mel Hall, it takes me back to when the Yankees were very bad. I think Hall is now in prison.

  12. larryf says:

    Gimme some of that kick the water cooler passion!

  13. Andy In Sunny Daytona says:

    Which Williams is going to take Roberto Kelly’s spot? I hope it’s not the one with the old man name who wears glasses….

    Thoughts of a young, obviously idiotic, Andy in Sunny Daytona.

  14. Opus says:

    Because of him, every Yankee player that doesn’t smash things when he makes an out is deemed lazy or uncaring.

    But that’s the media’s fault, not his. Loved Paulie.

  15. nsalem says:

    The signings of Mike Gallego in 1992, Key and Boggs in 1993, plus the
    O’Neill acquisition were the seeds for the culture of winning that still exists today. The brilliant draft choices (and the wisdom to keep the right players) by the Gene Michael led front office also deserves equal credit. If it wasn’t for Howie Spira this all might not have happened.

    • Yank the Frank says:

      Very true and Bob Watson also had something to do with it. The fact that George was not around enabled the team to start again on the road to greatness.

      • nsalem says:

        Watson did not come on board until after the 1995 season and was only here for a couple of years but he deserves credit also.

  16. gc says:

    Just looking at that picture, one would think there’s no way he’s gonna catch that ball!
    But he did, and we all started jumping around in our living rooms. Good times!

  17. Joey - hughes#34 says:

    I was at that game 5 of the ’01 World Series. One of the awesomest days of my life. I still get chills when I see replays of the chant.

  18. Januz says:

    The O’Neill Irish Crest sums it up well: A bloody stump of an arm with a sword. The fire, desire, and effort were always there (Along with the ability). My All-Time favorite athlete list: 3: Mario Lemieux. 2: Hines Ward. 1: Paulie. There may never be another quite like him.

  19. Tom Zig says:

    The truest of the true Yankees.

    For a modest fee of $200 plus whatever it costs in shipping there and back, Paul O’Neill will autograph a watercooler.

  20. larryf says:

    Showalter is mentioned in this thread. He set the tone for winning as well. I think the O’s will be alot tougher next year with Buck at the helm.

  21. Riverdale Joe says:

    Don’t forget Randy Velarde, he helped the clubhouse too. Plus, for some reason, hearing Bob Sheppard announce his name always put a smile on my face.

  22. I get chills just thinking about the Game 5 claps.

  23. ChrisR says:

    I love Paul, even tho I never was able to watch him play :’( I loved seeing replays of game 5 of 2001 WS. Again, I wish I was able to see him play :/

  24. Klemy says:

    Paul was a great acquisition. He quickly became one of my favorite players. I used to thank friends in Cincinnati for giving him to us repeatedly. That guy left it on the field nightly. I was as sad as I’ve ever been to see a player retire when he left after 2001.

    • Comrade Al says:

      I used to tell my friends back in 1990 that O’Neill was exactly the player the Yankees needed. My favorite of all the Yankees I’ve seen, and I’ve been watching since 1979.

  25. Jerome S says:

    Wait, so if he’s top 5 or top 10 material in Yankee trade history, what’s the rest?

  26. Chip says:

    .359/.460/.603 got you fifth in the MVP voting in 1994? Wow, those were the days…..

  27. nsalem says:

    Best Trade in Yankee History was Suzanne Kekich for Marilyn Peterson.

  28. vin says:

    “It’s arguably one the ten best trades in franchise history, maybe even top five. ”

    I smell a future RAB post.

    • MikeD says:

      It would certainly make top ten. Not sure if it makes top five. The Ruth trade (even if it was cash for a player), Sparky Lyle, Willie Randolph, Tino Martinez, Nettles and A-Rod trades are all ones that are right up there, and those are only “recent” ones, meaning from the 1970s forward. Would have to think about the rest of Yankee history, but, yeah, has to be top ten.

      Come to think of it, Lyle might have been involved in two of the best Yankee deals ever. One when he was traded to the Yankees, and then years later when he was traded away from the Yankees as the key piece to acquire a young minor league pitcher named Dave Righetti. There were like 50 other players involved in that deal, but those were the key pieces.

      Would make for a good RAB post.

      • MikeD says:

        …oh, and at what point does acquiring Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit enter the list of best-ever deals? I guess we need to give it a few more years, but it’s rapidly moving up the list.

  29. kosmo says:

    I remember sitting on one miserable rainy Sunday afternoon in April 2001 in a hotel room away on business .Much to my surprise a Yanks -Red Sox game was being televised from Yankee Stadium.The game was tied 2-2 going into the 10th inning when the Red Sox went ahead 3-2.In the bottom of the 10th O`Neill hit a HR to tie it followed by a Dave Justice HR to win it.
    To me for whatever reason this is the first memory that comes to mind when thinking of O´Neill.The second is the Polonia catch.

  30. Wil Nieves #1 Fan says:

    I was at Game 5 of the World Series. The Paul O’Neill chant was the greatest baseball moment of my life.

  31. Chris says:

    Some game around 2001 or 2002 he hit a HR Derek Lowe but he thought he flew out and he slammed the bat in disgust. That was perfect ONeill. Loved him.

  32. Chris says:

    Check that couldn’t be 2002 he had retired already. Must have been 2001.

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