The Curious Case of Roberto Kelly

August 10, 2010 | Joe Giglio

Buck Showalter’s first week in the Oriole dugout could not have gone any better. Seven wins in his first eight games is renewing interest in a fan base that had checked out many months ago. For the first time in years, the Orioles are on SportsCenter every morning for playing well night in and night out. Although many young players on this current team were too young to remember Buck’s first run as a manager in New York, the imprint he put on player evaluation will go farther in determining how many of these current Orioles are around in 2011 and beyond than the wins this week ever could.

Winning is always the first priority for a new manager, but finding the right group of players for the long haul is the chief priority over the next two months. Is Matt Wieters going to be the catcher here for the next 10 years? Does Brian Roberts have several great years left? Has Markakis found his niche as a doubles machine in the #2 spot? Is Adam Jones the next Tori Hunter…or will he become Roberto Kelly?

Remember Roberto Kelly? It’s OK if you don’t. The name may sound familiar (14 years in the big leagues will do that), but if the production and name value don’t jump off the page, it’s not just you. 124 career HR’s isn’t much to jog the memory. On the other hand, his experience with Buck Showalter as a Yankee in 1992 is something we all need to keep our eye on.

The New York Yankees improved dramatically between Buck’s second and third year on the bench in the early 90’s. During the 1992 season, one would have assumed that the ultra gifted Roberto Kelly was going to be a big part of the turnaround.  Kelly was an All-Star in 1992, showed great power, had 40 steal speed, and could run down anything in the outfield. He screamed athletic ability every time he took the field.

Why then, didn’t he stick around to be part of the turnaround in New York under Buck? Because he wasn’t built to last, and wasn’t good enough to succeed  in the the system the team was putting in. Buck Showalter teams are built on preparation before the game, patience at the plate, and maximum effort at all times. Kelly, for all his athletic prowess, did not show the ability to thrive in any of those areas. He was traded to Cincinnati prior to the 1993 season for Paul O’Neill, an underachieving outfielder who did not seem to posses any of the athletic traits that would lead to All-Star appearances. The trade was lambasted at the time, citing all of the traits on the surface that favored Kelly. It took a few years for the baseball community to realize what Buck and GM Gene Michael realized.

Sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious. Kelly looked like the better player. He carried himself like the athlete. O’Neill was emotional, had far less speed, and was coming off of a year where he hit .246 in the NL. But he was the better bet to grow and improve. Unlike Kelly, O’Neill was a tireless worker who would spend hours in the cage, and even sometimes in between pitches, perfecting his swing. He was a patient hitter who drew 77 walks in 1992, and despite his poor batting average, found his way on base at a .346 clip in ’92. And perhaps most importantly, he gave his whole soul to the game. He approached every at-bat like it was his last, hated making a single out, and could not handle losing. Kelly was an athlete playing baseball, O’Neill was a warrior with a glove on his hand.

As for Adam Jones? I bring up Roberto Kelly because I can’t help but see the similarities. I have heard complaints in regard to his game that are shockingly similar to what was said of Kelly as his career digressed. Of all the players that Showalter inherited last week, I find his evaluation of Jones to be the most interesting. For the record, I think Jones has all the potential in the world. I can envision a world where he becomes a Tori Hunter type of hitter and hits in the middle of the order while racking up gold gloves and All-Star appearances for years to come. On the other hand, I can also envision a scenario where his lack of patience at the plate, inconsistency in the field, and mercurial attitude lead him out of town for someone who fits the system better.

Enjoy the Orioles resurgence these next couple of months, but don’t forget what the manager is truly looking for. Wins and losses are for the water cooler talk and WNST blogs. Deciding on who will become the core of the next winning Oriole team? That is Buck Showalter’s biggest challenge, and quite possibly the most difficult task of the players on the current roster.

Thoughts? Questions? Think Roberto Kelly was a Hall of Famer? Bullish on Jones future?

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