The 1997 Oakland A's were ghastly. They lost 97 games and allowed 946 runs, donating folk hero Mark McGwire to the Cardinals somewhere along the way. There was some truly miserable pitching involved, but please consider that Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, Scott Brosius, Geronimo Berroa, and Jose Canseco (!) combined for almost 2,000 outfield innings. The pitchers never had a chance.
The A's shook up their front office that fall, promoting assistant GM Billy Beane to the GM role, with Sandy Alderson leaving to work for Bud Selig. It was a fractured mess of a roster that Beane inherited, even if the A's had one of the deeper minor league systems in the game. A GM capable of turning that mess around deserved to be immortalized in some capacity. Maybe a concept album about him, a graphic novel, or a one-man play. There's time to figure that out.
Two years later, the A's were over .500. Three years later, they made the first of four consecutive postseason appearances. The regime change was successful, and so was the franchise. All hail the GM change. Please hold your "well, actually"s until the end.
The A's from almost 20 years ago shouldn't have much to do with the 2015 Brewers -- new GM David Stearns was 12 years old when Beane took over, just to give one uncomfortable example -- but there are a few coincidences. The lousy team, for one. The commitment to allowing far too many runs, for another. The improving farm system and the chance for the No. 1 overall pick, combined with budgetary restraints that big-market teams don't have to consider. It's an imperfect comp, but there are more similarities to the '97 A's than dissimilarities. First we have to figure out what the Brewers aren't.
The Brewers aren't a scorched-earth franchise. They aren't the Tigers that Dave Dombrowski took over, one of baseball's all-time worst collections of talent. In a lost season, in which Kyle Lohse or Matt Garza often allowed home runs during the national anthem, you might have to strain to see the positives of the Brewers' situation right now, but they exist.
On the other hand, the Brewers aren't exactly set up well for the future, either. They aren't the Red Sox that Ben Cherington took over, coming off a 90-win season with a free-spending ownership desperate to erase the disappointment from the final month of the season. The Brewers don't have a roster in need of just a few tweaks and toggles.
They aren't the Pirates that handed the keys to Neal Huntington, a perennial laughingstock whose last .500 team and last postseason appearance had both came before the Internet, give or take. The Brewers were a model small-market franchise just three years ago, which is why former GM Doug Melvin was kept around the front office and not buried in the desert under a pile of E.T. cartridges.
These Brewers aren't the Phillies that hired Ruben Amaro, Jr., either. They aren't a wobbly Jenga structure of tough decisions and impossible expectations, a free-spending team wrapped around nostalgia in all the wrong ways at the worst time.
Those A's from 18 years ago came up because they're possibly the most famous example in baseball history of a new GM coming in and making a Huge Difference and Changing Everything. That's where the cult of the GM started, and it's when even casual fans started caring an awful lot about the individual running their team, when we started talking about the Beanes of baseball as much as, if not more than, the managers in the dugout. The Brewers' fans are right to have hope, even if the only thing they know for sure is that things will be different.
There's something buried under that idea that Billy Beane grabbed the talentless A's by the arm, yelling, "Come with me if you want to live." Under that myth, you'll find what actually happened. Beane took over for someone who thought an awful lot like him, and he inherited rivers of flowing talent. International free agents were breaking through, late-round picks were shining, first-round picks were doing what they were supposed to and the first draft pick Beane got to play with was the No. 2 overall pick.
The '97 A's were an extreme example of the situation most teams switching GMs are in -- young talent scattered around the debris, players to trade, a high draft pick to look forward to, and about two or three years away from contending if a few things go right. As the Astros and Twins have shown us this year, every team is a year away from contending with enough help from the farm. Beane's not famous because he fixed everything. He's famous because he didn't screw everything up. He added to that foundation with his own creativity and perspective, but that doesn't help if he doesn't inherit the talent to begin with.
That's the position Stearns is in. He's inheriting an organization that can be in the postseason in two or three years. The first step is to not screw everything up. The second step is to build around what's left over. He has to navigate messy contracts and untradeable veterans, young pitchers and hitters just coming into their own and players who might be worth more in trade value than on the field for a bad or transitioning team.
Jonathan Lucroy's down season and recurring concussion issues make it unlikely that he'll be moved in the offseason, but by this time next year, the Brewers will have a much better idea of how he can best help the next contending Brewers team. The team has spent a lot of the year being patient with their young pitchers, and they're getting encouraging results from Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann. Kyle Lohse's contract -- sensible at the time, but a current disaster -- is expiring, giving the Brewers a little money to play with. Ryan Braun isn't an MVP anymore, but he's a fine start to a balanced lineup.
Stearns also inherits a trade haul from the deadline that was among the most impressive in recent memory, with a pair of outfielders who might reach the majors next year, along with a pitcher who's already getting his trial in the majors right now. They join a minor league system that's steadily improving. From John Sickels:
The 2015 draft added outfielder Trent Clark, off to an excellent start in rookie ball (.309/.422/.442 with 20 steals), University of Virginia lefty Nathan Kirby and hard-throwing Cal Poly Pomona right-hander Cody Ponce could move quickly, while power/speed outfielder Demi Orimoloye (.292/.319/.518, six homers, 19 steals in rookie ball) has star potential if he can close up the holes in his approach (three walks, 39 strikeouts)
Overall, whoever ends up making the decisions here inherits a farm system with considerable upside and improving depth.
And, like Beane, there's a chance that Stearns will have a No. 2 pick to play with. Those A's weren't the A's without Mark Mulder, drafted with that pick. Just like the Astros aren't the Astros right now without Carlos Correa, drafted the season after the new regime took over.
It's that Astros team that's probably the best comp for the future of the Brewers, considering that's where Stearns came from. They knew enough not to mess with Jose Altuve and Jason Castro, built through the farm and maximized the trade returns of the leftover veterans. There were missteps (J.D. Martinez), but it was a very methodical accumulation of talent around the furniture that the old tenants left.
The good news is that the Brewers are better than the 2011 Astros were, better than the 1997 A's. They're a last-place team with more talent throughout the organization than the typical 100-loss team. Now they have a new GM with a welcome perspective and history of recent rags-to-riches success. His first step is to not screw up whatever he was left. Without naming names (fine, Padres), it's not something every new GM does effortlessly. With a little luck and a lot of skill, Stearns might be the next Billy Beane, if a little less celebrated. He might be the right person for a franchise that needs to outthink rather than outspend.
And maybe there's a 12-year-old right now who will follow in those footsteps over the next couple decades. Just don't think about how old you'll feel when he or she takes the job, and we'll all be fine.
* * *
SB Nation archives: Baseball's best boss (2012)