Yankees: Revisiting the Paul O’Neill Trade in 1992 That Changed His Career

New York Yankees OF Paul O'Neill (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
New York Yankees OF Paul O'Neill (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images) /

Paul O’Neill joined New York following the 1992 season, and it changed his life and Yankee history.

Following the 1992 MLB season, Paul O’Neill was a 29-year-old outfielder with one singular All-Star appearance under his belt, in need of a fresh start.

Sure, he finished 19th in the MVP race during Cincinnati’s wire-to-wire 1990 World Series title season, but that was more a product of circumstance than of overwhelming numbers — he hit just .270 with 16 homers that season. In fact, the O’Neill who played in a Reds uniform barely resembled the player New Yorkers would eventually grow to love. He wasn’t a high OBP threat. Outside of a power surge in ’91 (28 bombs), he was mostly languishing in the teens.

Oddly enough, O’Neill was mostly known for one goofy kick rather than star power.


That’s why it was so surprising when the Yankees took a chance and dealt top young star Roberto Kelly to Cincinnati to secure O’Neill’s services on Nov. 5, 1992 (also adding prospect Joe De Berry).

Kelly’s career is deeply strange, upon reexamination. At the point of the deal, he’d gone from Yankees top prospect/player intended to lead the NYY out of an era of doldrums to a 27-year-old coming off his first All-Star season, hitting .272 with 10 homers in another losing campaign. Looking back on Kelly’s Yankee tenure, it was…more solid than you’d think, considering the expectations of stardom he clearly didn’t meet. By this point, however, he and O’Neill were both theoretically entering their primes, and only one had shown near-30-homer potential, as well as the ability to hit .400 in a postseason series, like O’Neill did in 1990 (.471 in the NLCS against Pittsburgh).

Therefore, Stick Michael made the correct swap as he always did, and the Yankees got themselves a lefty slugger who rifled balls into the short porch with regularity, and was Public Enemy No. 1 to all water coolers.

A capable fielder and devastating attacker of the baseball, O’Neill’s “jump” happened almost immediately. In 1993, O’Neill hit .311 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI. The next season, O’Neill fulfilled potential that not even he could’ve been sure was there, hitting a ridiculous .359 and reaching base 46% of the time in a 21-homer season across just 103 games. By the time MLB action resumed in 1995, O’Neill was clearly entrenched as the veteran linchpin and attitude driver of New York’s next dynasty.

As for Kelly? We forgive you if you discarded him, too, but he remained…a much more productive player than he gets credit for. In fact, his ’93 season in Cincy was just as good as O’Neill’s while it lasted — in 78 games, he hit .319 and made the All-Star team once more. He hit .323 in 1996 with Minnesota. He wrapped his career having hit .290 overall in 14 seasons. You’d take it!

Next. Revisiting the Tino Martinez Trade. dark

But he wasn’t O’Neill by any means. Michael made the upgrade and got the real prize, though it was far from a safe bet at the time he pulled the trigger. That’s how champions are made.