On Saturday, the Yankees will honor longtime right-fielder and current YES Network color analyst Paul O'Neill with a plaque in Monument Park. No matter what you think of the whole plaque thing - who has one that shouldn't... who doesn't that should - it's a tribute that O'Neill, a top contributor on Yankee teams that won four World Series and five American League pennants, richly deserves. Alongside the rings, the four All-Star appearances, the 1994 batting title, "the one-legged catch," "the walk," and the Seinfeld episode, one of the more regal hallmarks of O'Neill's pinstriped tenure was the absolute steal of a trade that transformed him, at age 30, from a middling National League player into a Yankee legend.
At the end of the 1992 season, the Yankees weren't the Yankees, at least not in the way we know them now. Their 76-86 record in '92 marked their fourth straight losing season, and they were riding an eleven-year playoff drought. Their no-name manager, a 38-year-old Buck Showalter, was the tenth man to hold the job in that span and George Steinbrenner was just returning from a two-plus year suspension for associating with known gambler Howie Spira. That winter's free agent class included the likes of Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Kirby Puckett, a cache that would have the club salivating today, but back then, their $37 million payroll was roughly 20 percent below those of the league's top spenders and the roster in place wasn't exactly one that future Hall-of-Famers were itching to join. Don Mattingly was breaking down, the top starter was Melido Perez, and Danny Tartabull, at least in the lens of batting average-home run-RBI evaluations used at the time, was looking like a big-money bust. One of the few bright lights was a toolsy 28-year-old center-fielder named Roberto Kelly.
When he arrived on the scene in the late '80s, Kelly was touted by Yankee brass as their next great superstar - a five-tool, do-everything kind of guy. He wasn't the Panamanian Mickey Mantle that everyone was hoping for, but Kelly did do enough early in his career to keep fans intrigued. He amassed 12.2 fWAR between 1989 and 1992, swiping 137 bases and slugging 54 homers in the process while showing off with a few highlight reel catches in the outfield. It's not surprising that when GM Gene Michael dealt Kelly away for an older, less versatile Cincinnati Red, a career .259 hitter who'd just finished a totally pedestrian .246/.346/.373 '92 campaign, he did so without much public support. Michael was panned pretty much universally for the Kelly-O'Neill swap. Give up on a homegrown talent? Create a logjam with the incumbent Tartabull in right? Leave no one but the unproven Bernie Williams to man center? What was he thinking?
Michael's justification for the deal at the time was the Yankees' need for lefty hitters. "We were looking for left-handed bats because I didn't think we had enough," he told reporters, including Jack Curry, then with the New York Times. "I always said we were too right-handed. I feel this is a quality hitter and Yankee Stadium should be conducive to his hitting."
Michael was careful with his words, but there was more to it than just handedness. O'Neill was the kind of hitter he wanted to build his offense around and Kelly wasn't. The Yankees of that era were among the first front offices to emphasize the importance of getting on base by any means, and patience wasn't one of the tools in Kelly's repertoire - his 6.7 percent career walk rate to that point was well short of O'Neill's 10.3. With the plate discipline already there, Michael believed that putting O'Neill in the Bronx, and somewhat counter-intuitively, urging him to go the opposite way more, would turn him into a much stronger offensive player than the guy he was replacing. Michael ignored popular opinion and gambled, knowing that if the deal backfired and Kelly emerged as a star, it could easily cost him his job. It didn't.
You don't need me to remind you how it all worked out, but I will anyway. In the nine seasons between 1993 and 2001, O'Neill hit .303/.377/.492 with a wRC+ of 125 and collected 26.7 fWAR. He got going right away, posting a career-best .871 OPS in '93 and an even-better 1.064 in '94 that was good enough to place him fifth in the AL MVP race. He managed six straight seasons with wOBAs of .380 or better and during his tenure, the Yankees finished a combined 250 games over .500. Kelly, meanwhile, played on eight different teams in eight seasons, including a short stint back in New York in 2000. His post-Yankee wRC+ was 104 and his fWAR was just 5.5, just 0.1 above O'Neill's number for 1998 alone. He did find a niche as a useful right-handed platoon bat in the late '90s with Seattle and Texas.
Where does the O'Neill deal rank among the top trades in Yankee history? You could put it as high as second, right behind Babe Ruth for No No Nanette, with Roger Maris for Don Larsen and Hank Bauer, Willie Randolph and Dock Ellis for Doc Medich, and A-Rod for Alfonso Soriano forming some stiff competition. No matter where you rank it, the O'Neill trade was a benchmark moment in the construction of one of the great teams of all time and in the transformation of the '90s Yankees from also-ran to dynasty. As we honor O'Neill this weekend, let's also remember Gene Michael as the architect of one of the epic transactions in Yankee history.