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Branch Rickey, Josh Donaldson, And Jon Lester

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A look back tells a bit of a tale on the present and future of transactions.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cardinals fired Branch Rickey as field manager in the 1920s, major-league baseball was different than it is now. MLB Network, obviously, didn't exist. Nor did the concussion disabled list, binding arbitration, replay review or players getting sent to the minors to avoid paying them another year in free agency. Before Rickey became in charge of developing the Cardinals system, player development was very rudimentary, and is hasn't stopped changing since.

Rickey thought he was getting a demotion by getting kicked upstairs. He turned it into an industry-wide revolution. Teams had one team only. The minor league squads were unaffiliated.  If you lost a player due to injury, you had to find another guy. Maybe that kid your scout saw in Amarillo is worth purchasing. Or the guy in Newark who is a bit older. You didn't have feeder teams. Owners didn't want them, as they would be an added expense.

Nonetheless, against the wishes of the Commissioner (who was employed by the league owners, then as now), Rickey started buying up some minor league teams, and aligning them with the Cardinals. In the 1940s, Rickey moved to the Dodgers, and later helped the Pirates as well. He plucked Roberto Clemente out of the Rule 5 Draft for Pittsburgh before ending his Hall of Fame career.

And you thought the Moneyball rift was wide. Many teams were very resistant to fully adopt the "minor league system" way of doing things. They paid a hefty price. What Rickey's Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates tried to do was out-develop the other squads. To a large extent, it worked.

Rickey is a fascinating character, and you might want to read up on him. From the batting helmet, platoon splits, racial integration, as well as the farm system, many baseball innovations have Rickey's fingerprints all over them. But, what does he have to do with the best pitcher and the best hitter on last season's Athletics squad?

Josh Donaldson was traded recently to the Blue Jays for four players. While you might think I'm going to rant about the Cubs trading him in the first place, that's not where I'm going. Oakland traded the Cubs a valued asset, and brought in Donaldson as part of the return. Oakland deserves credit for developing Donaldson as they did, as he was by no means a finished product when he arrived.

Instead, I'm going to comment a bit on Toronto general manager Alex Anthopolous' strategy on running the Blue Jays. A few years back, the Jays became very aggressive in acquiring some big-name pitching. Last off-season, they were again very aggressive in acquisitions. Again, it didn't work. So far this offseason, they'be bought (Russell Martin) and traded for (Donaldson) quality to improve their big-league club yet again.

Some might ask: How do they keep having so many prospects that they can trade so many, yet have still more, like Marcus Stroman and Daniel Norris, in reserve? Because the Jays are probably very well aware of how Rickey made the Cardinals a success. Out-developing your opposition is a good thing.

Regarding Jon Lester, the Cubs have pushed rather hard for MLB veteran free agents. As of now, they haven't been successful in reeling them in. They have, however, done one thing rather well. The Cubs have floated numbers on Lester, Martin, and even their own Jeff Samardzija, to show they weren't skimping on offers. If Lester chooses to go elsewhere, it will be a bitter pill to swallow. However, missing on Lester will not be to a lack of trying. Or offering a reasonable contract.

If Lester doesn't come to Chicago, then what?

The Cubs have other options, including mainly Max Scherzer, who will be very expensive as well. Or, they could decide that overspending on elite arms isn't the best option this year. Perhaps a Brandon McCarthy or Jason Hammel, at a more garage-sale price level, makes more sense. To some, this sounds like a stupid idea. Much like buying minor league clubs did just under a century ago.

On my Twitter timeline in the last month or so, someone referred to amateur spending (as opposed to veteran free agents) as the last bastion of a positive return on investment there is. This, to that observer, was why MLB was clamping down on IFA and MLB draft spending. They might be correct.

One of the key pieces in the Toronto package to Oakland was Franklin Barreto. While probably not a shortstop in the long run, Barreto could move into just about any other position as he develops. He is quick enough, has enough pop and contact, and has enough defensive prowess to be a quality player. Barreto was an international signing by Toronto in July 2012. They overspent their limit that season.

The next season, the Cubs overspent their limit. They brought in prospects such as shortstop Gleyber Torres, outfielder Eloy Jimenez and (2014 Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year) Jen-Ho Tseng. These players, with others are running through the Cubs system now, being polished as much as possible.

One of the criticisms I get is that I focus too much on the Cubs farm system. I'm sure that the same was said of Branch Rickey in the day by Commissioner Landis. A major league front office has more than one role. The person running ticket sales had better be good at his job, or the team could suffer. The guy in charge of marketing ought to be diligent at his role, as should be the person in charge of concessions.

That I tend to not talk about other aspects isn't because I don't think they are important. I talk about what I do because I find them important and fascinating.

The Cubs have more people on the talent development side than they ever have in other regimes. Theo Epstein strongly believes in turning the players at his disposal into the best players they can be. Some will make the majors as Cubs. Some will be used in trades to improve the team that way. Others will be around to push those in the other two categories.

In that development, it isn't just Epstein, the managers, and the coaches. People are working behind the scenes to see to it that everyone from the Venezuelan and Dominican sites have everything they need to do their jobs. Scouts are also vital, as their recommendations get selections made, and draft picks spent.

In the coming years, I expect the Cubs to outdevelop the teams in their division. I expect the Cubs to outresearch the teams in their division. If the TV and radio details get properly worked out, they might be able to outspend their opponents in the division, as well.

When you have a Cardinals fan in your life who is a bit too smug regarding that team's success, that fan should be very thankful that St. Louis had Branch Rickey running things for 20 or so years. His long-cast shadow is still visible today. On the field, and off. Had the Cubs been more proactive in development from the 1920s onward, they would be a better franchise today, with more flags flying. Perhaps some would have been seized from St. Louis.

However, that is largely in the past. Whether the Cubs ink Jon Lester or not (I'm guessing they won't), the Cubs have a plan to take the style of development Rickey used in the mid-20th century, and ramping it up to present day standards. It should pay many dividends. Those dividends may well bring in quite a bit of talent, both directly and indirectly. Those indirect dividends may look a bit like Josh Donaldson.