Former Reds General Manager Jim Bowden has said this was the worst trade he ever made and he’s probably right.
O’Neill was born in Columbus, Ohio, went to college in Ohio, and the Reds drafted him in the 4th round in the 1981 amateur draft. After two cups of coffee with the Reds in 1985 and 1986, he made the majors for good halfway through the 1987 season, and earned a permanent starting job in 1988 when Dave Parker was traded to the A’s. O’Neill responded with a .252 average and 16 homers, which became about his norm during his five fulltime season with the Reds. He averaged .259 in his time with Cincinnati and hit 96 homers, with a high of 28 homers in 1991. During the 1990 Reds World Championship season O’Neill batted .270 wiht 16 home runs. However, he dropped to .256 and .246 over the two subsequent seasons.
Meanwhile, centerfielder Roberto Kelly had just finished his fourth complete season (sixth overall) for the Yankees in 1992, batting .272 with 10 homers and 28 steals. O’Neill had just completed his age 29 baseball season, Kelly had finished his age 27 season. The Reds had traded Eric Davis to the Dodgers following the 1971 season and had been using journeyman outfielder Dave Martinez in centerfield and the Reds needed an upgrade, so the Reds turned to Kelly.
Well, so much for that idea….Kelly got off to a good start in Cincinnati being named to the all-star team on a terrible Reds team beset by injuries in 1993. Kelly batted .319 before being knocked out for the season with an injury after 78 games. Kelly hit well for average again in 1994, hitting .302 with no power in a half season before being dealt to the Braves for one of the game’s most exciting, and a Jim Bowden family favorite player, Deion Sanders. Kelly became a journeyman himself, playing through 2000 and never playing for a team for more than two seasons; he played for the Braves, Expos, Dodgers, Twins, Mariners, and Yankees all between 1994 and 2000. He had a lifetime .290 batting average and 124 home runs.
Meanwhile, O’Neill became a star hitting over .300 in his first six seasons with the Yankees. He had never been one to hit for average with the Reds, but proceeded to hit .311, .359, .300, .302, .324 and .317 in his first six seasons with the Yankees, winning the league title with the .359 average in 1994. He also hit over 20 homers in five of his next six seasons, and never hit fewer than 18 in 11 years with the Yankees. He was a four-time all-star for the Yankees, and batted .284 with 11 homers in 85 postseason games. His career with the Yankees gave him 185 homers and a .303 batting average before retiring after the 2001 season. His career totals gave him a .288 batting average and 281 career home runs.
O”Neill won a 1990 World Series with the Reds and was on four World Championship Yankee teams in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Joe DeBerry, O’Neill’s partner in the trade, was a 1b-of who never made it out of the minors. The Reds could have really used O’Neill in 1995 when they lost in the National League Division series when their outfield included Darren Lewis, Eric Anthony, Thomas Howard, and Jerome Walton manning centerfield. Reggie Sanders and Ron Gant were on the wings, but the Reds lost to the Braves four games to none. Adding O’Neill’s 1995 stat line of .300 and 22 homers in right field, with Sanders moving to centerfield would have added even more to this Reds’ offense.
Having some of those relievers the Reds let go around 1990 would have probably helped, too. John Franco, John Wetteland, Jeff Montgomery, Trevor Hoffman, and Jeff Russell to accompany Jeff Brantley and Mike Jackson would probably have been more effective than Chuck McElroy and his 6.02 ERA, Xavier Hernandez’s 4.60, and Hector Carrasco’s 4.12 ERA out of the pen. That same season Hoffman had 31 saves and a 3.88 ERA for the Padres, Montgomery had 31 saves and 3.43 ERA for the Royals, Wetteland had 31 saves and 2.93 ERA for the Yankees, and Russell had 20 saves and a 3.03 ERA for the Rangers. John Franco had 29 saves and a 2.44 ERA for the Mets. For the Reds, Brantley had 28 saves and a 2.82 ERA and Jackson posted a 2.39 ERA.