Rough seas ahead for Captain, Yanks?

ORLANDO, Fla. -- If the New York Yankees could get Derek Jeter to agree to a three-year contract for $21 million per year, they would sign off on it today.

But they can't get him to agree to that, which is why we are a week away from Thanksgiving Day and a deal that was supposed to be a slam dunk is still on the shot clock.

That is the word from a source with inside knowledge of the negotiations between the Yankees and Jeter. The source says the Yankees are willing to give Jeter more money than his play currently warrants, but fewer years than Jeter currently wants.

Jeter, the source said, wants more. Four years, minimum, and preferably five or even six. Right now, it is a standoff, a dirty dance, a game of chicken in which one side or the other must eventually blink.

And according to the source, who has ties to both the team and the player, there is at least one voice inside the Yankees' hierarchy urging the front office to play its game as hard as Jeter plays his on the field.

"Tell him the deal is three years at $15 million a year, take it or leave it," goes the hard-line approach. "Wait him out and he'll wind up taking it. Where's he gonna go, Cincinnati?"

But according to the source, the Yankees are fearful of taking that sort of a stance with their most beloved player since Mickey Mantle, fearful of a fan backlash and a public relations nightmare even though history says this team, better than any other, can survive parting ways with even the most beloved player in the bitterest fashion.

This, after all, is a franchise that parted on bad terms with Babe Ruth, only the greatest player of all time and the one player who truly did more for this franchise than the franchise did for him. The Yankees survived that, and they survived the jettisoning of Bernie Williams and the split with Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui after both played pivotal roles in their 2009 World Series championship.

And the men who run the Yankees now, Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman and Randy Levine, as unsentimental and hard-nosed a lot as has ever run this ballclub, know they will survive a bad split with Derek Jeter, too, if that's how this all eventually plays out.

Obviously, that is not how they want it to go, but only a fool or a child would discount the possibility that it might.

The official line from the Yankees is that the negotiation is proceeding as all negotiations do, at its own pace and with its own unique potholes and sticking points.

"Derek Jeter is a great Yankee and he's a great player," said Levine. "With that said and done, now is a different negotiation than 10 years ago."

That last statement is open to many interpretations, but its essential meaning seems pretty clear. Jeter is 10 years older than he was when he signed that $189 million contract from The Boss following a triumphant 2000 World Series in which the Yankees beat the Mets and Jeter was voted the Series MVP.

He is not, however, 10 years better. His best playing days are behind him and his inevitable decline has probably begun. He will turn 37 before the 2011 All-Star break, older than any other starting shortstop in the league, and despite winning the Gold Glove at his position for the 2010 season, he has clearly lost significant range in the field.

And his bat, always reliable, fell off 44 points from his career average of .314, and 64 points off his transcendent 2009 season, when he hit .334.

He earned $21 million last season, but at this stage of his career, he is a $21 million player by reputation only. Still, the source said the Yankees are willing to keep him at that level for three more years, if only out of loyalty and gratitude for past favors.

Levine, the only Yankees representative at Wednesday's session of the GM meetings, with Hal Steinbrenner having returned to Tampa for his daughter's birthday and Cashman having flown back to New York in the morning to continue his search for a pitching coach, refused to delve into the specifics of the Jeter negotiations.

But again, Levine's words were revealing when he said, "He's a baseball player, and this is a player negotiation. Everything he is and who he is gets factored in. But this isn't a licensing deal or a commercial rights deal, he's a baseball player. With that said, you can't take away from who he is. He brings a lot to the organization. And we bring a lot to him."

Meaning, the Yankees would like to pay him on the basis of performance, not persona. And that being a Yankee has benefited Derek Jeter, player and persona, every bit as much as Derek Jeter has benefited the Yankees.

That sounds like the framework for a tougher-than-expected negotiation, and a potentially "messy" one, to borrow Hal Steinbrenner's word, if one or both of the sides don't soften.

And it echoes what was said during Joe Torre's final negotiation, which turned truly messy, when Levine laid out the team's position that it was the Yankees who made Torre, and not vice versa.

According to Levine, Cashman was expected to contact Jeter's agent, Casey Close, either Wednesday night or Thursday to check in. He will do the same with Fern Cuza, the agent for Mariano Rivera, and with Darek Braunecker, the agent for Cliff Lee.

"We would love to have both of them back," Levine said of Jeter and Rivera, "but as Hal said, it's a business."

How much of this is posturing and how much is truth is tough to say. Close did not return a call seeking comment. But for two sides who have professed since the end of the season to want badly to remain together, it appears each has a taken a position that so far has prevented that from happening.

It is not supposed to be easy, of course, especially in a negotiation between a team that has to plan for its future and a player to whom that team owes much of its past success.

Red Sox GM Theo Epstein faced a similarly touchy situation two years ago when it came time to negotiate with Jason Varitek, his team's captain, a pivotal part of two Boston teams that snapped an 86-year championship drought, and a beloved fan favorite.

At 36, Varitek was coming out of a four-year, $40 million deal and off a season in which he hit a career-low .220 with just 13 home runs. Epstein played it tough, cutting Varitek's salary to $5 million per year for one year with an option for 2010, which he wound up picking up.

"That was purely a baseball decision," Epstein said. "The baseball operations department's job is to make a market-based assessment based on performance. You can factor in other things like intangibles and marketing and organizational loyalty, but I think you have to start with the baseball and go from there."

Asked if it was more difficult to part ways with a player whose departure would cause ripples through the fan base and subject the team to charges of disloyalty, or worse, Epstein said, "You always try to ignore the chorus out there, especially this time of the year. You're human so you have fond feelings for those who've helped you win in the past, but the way GMs demonstrate loyalty to the organization and a fan base is by building teams that win and play in October."

This is not to imply that Jeter and Varitek are in any way comparable as ballplayers, only in their situations as they reach the endgame of great careers.

And Cashman is not Epstein, although their thought processes and belief in taking a dry-eyed look at what is best for their ballclubs are similar.

Cashman and his colleagues in the Yankees' front office have an idea of what they believe Derek Jeter is worth to them at this point in his career.

Jeter's idea of his worth to the Yankees is apparently somewhat different.

That is the crux of any negotiation. And perhaps, the beginning of what may yet be a messy one.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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