I’ve been a baseball fan as long as I can remember. Went to my first game in 1973. So, I was a kid when the whole Baseball Revolution happened: I was nine when Catfish Hunter signed with the New York Yankees, ten-going-on-eleven when Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first true “free agents” and the newspapers were going crazy about the “death of the Reserve Clause.” I didn’t know what that meant. As time went on and I came to learn about the mechanics of the standard baseball contract from the beginning of time – actually 1879 — to 1974, I could see the unfairness of it and became quite aware of who Curt Flood was. As I grew older, I could see the value of what Players Union Leader Marvin Miller accomplished, with the help of the likes of Flood, Messersmith and Hunter and I cheered when all his work was finally recognized by the Hall of Fame, albeit posthumously.

The Reserve Clause effectively bound a player to a certain team for the length of his career. At the time of its inception, yes, the Reserve Clause was a hedge against teams raiding each other for the best players, but also provided a measure of security for the players themselves. Originally, it was called the “Five Man Rule,” which meant only the five most desirable players on each team could be put “on Reserve.” In the early days, it was an honor to have a Reserve Clause in your contract. But of course, as time went on, the owners found that they were still losing money when the other non-five-man players jumped teams, so the Reserve Clause became baseball industry standard. So, by the mid-1970s, it was dead and buried and I never thought it could be revived – until the players wanted it to be.

Fast-forward to late-March 2021. Francisco Lindor, the Mets’ newly acquired shortstop – the best one in the game right now – has an expiring contract at the conclusion of 2021 and is in the midst of negotiating an extension. The Mets offer a ten-year, $315 million dollar deal, but the Lindor camp wanted a 12-year, $385 million accord. If you do the math, the average annual value shakes out to roughly the same either way, about $32 million and change per year. Eventually, they met in the middle, with Lindor agreeing to a ten-year, $341 million dollar extension – effectively locking him up in Queens until his age-39 season. This is not an outlier. The Lindor signing came on the heels of the San Diego Padres locking in their own stud shortstop, Fernando Tatis, Jr. – just 22 years old — to a 14-year (!!!!) $340 million deal, the longest in MLB history. Mets’ star outfielder Michael Conforto, a 28-year-old, also has an expiring contract this year, and while he wouldn’t command the length or the numbers of the Lindor or Tatis agreements, he is still looking for the security of remaining with one team well into his 30s. It makes a long-time baseball watcher shake his ol’ grey head. Suddenly, we are back in the day of the “Five Man Rule” – the players who are deemed “worth it” have their careers sewn up with one club, barring any special clauses like opt-outs and such. Bear in mind, most of these megadeals also include some form of no-trade clause or another. It makes you wonder what Miller, Flood and the rest were fighting for. Flood’s lawsuit against MLB cited the lack of freedom of player movement, of not being able to play where he wanted in his refusal to report to the Philadelphia Phillies after a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals following the 1969 season. Now it seems that no one wants to go anywhere. Yes, the figures tossed around are astronomical – this is money I will never see if I live a thousand lifetimes – and the players have a far more equal footing with the magnates who own the franchises, but it makes one wonder if the new lengths of these contracts, this new “Reserve Clause,” is good for the long-term health of the game. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as happy as the next Met fan that Lindor and Conforto are likely to still be here when I turn 66.

I just wonder if this will start a 95-year cycle all over again.

5 comments on “Francisco Lindor, Michael Conforto and the new reserve clause

  • JamesTOB

    I remember when Tom Seaver wanted a whopping $100,000 a year. He was denied and because of the Reserve Clause had no other option. The cancellation of the Reserve Clause meant the escalation of salaries. As for Lindor’s contract, I have two concerns. The first, I think I’ve expressed before. If any team pays its superstars huge sums of money there is much less for other good players who are necessary for a team to be a perennial contender. I am hoping that the new contract will raise the salary restraints, but that won’t solve the problem long term as salaries will simply continue to escalate and we’ll be right back where we are now. The only solution appears to be a great farm system where you can jettison a superstar when the farm produces his vastly cheaper replacement and so a team keeps rotating players so it can maintain its budget.
    My second concern is the simple dishonesty of Lindor’s contract. In what universe can he presume or promise to produce at a superstar level when he’s 37, 38, and 39? Has Albert Pujols? These guys are demanding money for performance they cannot give, as well as tying a team’s hands in giving their fans a high-caliber team. LIndor, in his vanity, wanted more than Tatis, Jr., but at least Tatis’ contract is an honest one. At 22, he can reasonably expect to contribute significantly in 14 years when he’s 36.

  • Brian Joura

    There are only a few clubs who have both the stomach and the pocketbook to hand out these 10-year or more deals. Certainly we won’t see the Royals or the Rays or the Marlins do it. Shoot, we just saw the Diamondbacks (Greinke,) Mariners (Cano) and Rockies (Arenado) move their super-long, super-expensive deals. And the Indians (Lindor,) Red Sox (Betts) and Orioles (Macahdo) trade guys ahead of them cashing in on these deals.

    We’ve seen guys extend with their original club and we’ve seen guys leave big-market teams (Harper/Nats, Machado/Dodgers) to sign elsewhere.

    I guess at the end of the day, I don’t see a problem with it. Signing these deals isn’t some guarantee of success for the clubs that do it. And I want the players to get as much money as they can.

  • Foxdenizen

    I really don’t see the comparison of long term contracts in the present with the pre 1974 reserve clause. Players can negotiate long term deals (if they are good enough) or they can bcome free agents when they are eligible now. That was not the case back before the mid 70s.

  • Wobbit

    I’m a diehard advocate of Small is Beautiful, and I’d love to see a limit on length of contract… like 5 years. Consider the advantages…
    After playing through their initial contract, they are negotiating for the rest of their 20’s. Around 30, they will get another contract commensurate with their potential value, which takes them to their mid 30’s. Any value remaining will be compensated appropriately.
    I have no doubt it would all work out and would evolve this stupifying policy of overpaying players well past their value. They can still be overpaid, but it would have a time limit. Let the devolving bidding process begin!

  • JoeVasile

    In terms of “what Miller, Flood and the rest were fighting for” these contracts were exactly what they wanted. Without free agency there is no 10-year, $341 million deal for Lindor. Plus now with the length of deals and no-trade clauses involved it’s about the player making a choice to sign. Whereas before McNally and Messersmith tested the waters players basically had no choice but to accept whatever the team offered. Their only leverage was to hold out. Now they have the leverage of being free to sign with other teams if their terms aren’t met.

    Long-term contracts such as these are inherently good for the players. Consider the case of Jacoby Ellsbury and the Yankees. He was hurt and didn’t play for the last few years of his deal and was able to make over $60 million in that time. In the days before free agency the Yankees would have not offered him a contract after the first year and not have to have paid him anything. That’s why signing a series of one-year contracts (like Trevor Bauer wants to do — but that’s a whole other story) is risky. One injury and you have no security. No trade clauses give you more say over where a team can trade you. They can’t just decide where to send you without your consent, you have to approve. Also good for players.

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