When 29-year-old outfielder Paul O’Neill was acquired by the Yankees in an offseason trade with the Cincinnati Reds in 1992, there were no hints of a dynasty materializing in New York. What later became known as the “Core Four” was just in its infant stages, and the franchise’s goal of winning a world championship–or even a division title–lacked practicality.
But in a short period of time, the Yankees’ rebuilding process transpired with a resurgence of youth, piloted by O’Neill, who found himself in five World Series in nine seasons.
Now, in 2017, the YES Network analyst is witnessing the team’s latest rebuild from the booth, and believes the wait for highly touted prospects is worth fans’ time.
“I think a lot of fans actually talk about seeing younger players play, because in the old days when you came in where it was World Series-or-bust,” O’Neill said in a recent Q&A with Steve Serby of the New York Post. “I don’t think that you have that same feeling, but you do have a feeling because you’re part of the Yankees and you do have some big-name players on this team, that this team can compete and have a chance to win.
“I think [GM Brian] Cashman obviously sees the free-agent market at the end of this year, I think you see money coming off the books this year, and you also see some real young studs that can become great players here in the future. It’s not the first time Yankees fans saw a rebuilding process, but rebuilding here, you’re still expected to win.”
Since O’Neill’s retirement in 2001, New York has seen a total of eight different players start in right field on Opening Day. The hope is that stability at the position is near with the emergence of rookie Aaron Judge.
“I saw at-bats last year where he only gave himself like one swing in an at-bat. He was trying to be too perfect,” O’Neill said of Judge, who hit .179 with 42 strikeouts in 84-at bats last year. “And when you’re a power hitter, you gotta give yourself chances. He’s not a guy that should go up there trying to hit home runs because he’s so big and strong that he doesn’t need to. This new Yankee Stadium to me is just as suited for good right-handed hitters to right-center.”
Before the names of Jeter, Williams and Posada flourished in the field and at the plate, veterans like O’Neill were there to carry the weight and settle the youngsters’ nerves. This season, those responsibilities belong to veteran outfielders Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury and third baseman Chase Headley, according to O’Neill.
“Ellsbury, Gardner and Headley need to have good years to take the pressure off the younger players,” he said. “If you get off to a tough start, in my mind, younger players panic much easier than older players, and that’s why it’s imperative that they get off to a good start where the young guys can just get a little momentum going.”
Perhaps the team should take heed of O’Neill’s advice. After all, he has a ring or five.