Rivera joins Jeter in ‘what’s the deal’?

Jeff Passan

The quickly devolving Derek Jeter(notes) negotiations might not be the New York Yankees' only problem. They're playing hardball with Mariano Rivera(notes), too.

While the free-agent closer is seeking a two-year deal, the Yankees are currently inclined to offer him only one year, according to a source familiar with the team's thinking. And by doing so, they risk doing to Rivera what they've already done with Jeter: muck up talks that could've – and should've – gone smoothly.

In taking a hard line with their two biggest stars since Mickey Mantle, the Yankees are banking on the greatest leverage they've got: the notion that Jeter and Rivera wouldn't fathom wearing another uniform. It is a canny strategy. For Jeter or Rivera to walk away wouldn't merely take a contract offer of less than they believe they're worth. It would necessitate a profound insult, and the Yankees expect the players to interpret the team's tack as business, not personal.

With Rivera, it could easily remain so. The chasm between one year and two years isn't insurmountable, and the Yankees are already prepared to give him a raise from the $15 million he made in 2010. Whether Rivera meets the Yankees in the middle at one year with a club option or holds firm at two years and expects the team to honor his contributions and continued dominance will determine whether the negotiations turn as contentious as Jeter's.

And do not undersell the three-year, $45 million offer the Yankees sent their shortstop's way as a mere negotiating parry. It was, to the Jeter camp, a declaration – not of war, not yet, but not of an easily obtained, peaceful treatise, either. Between asking Jeter to take a nearly one-third pay cut from last season and spinning in the media that any delay is Jeter's fault, the Yankees are playing a dangerous game – one fueled by an arrogant belief that Jeter wouldn't at least entertain the possibility of going elsewhere.

The Yankees do offer Jeter and Rivera the best of most worlds. They can pay each more than any other team, though it would indeed be interesting to see what Jeter could get on the open market for a team hoping to cash in on his 3,000th hit (he has 2,926). They enter each season with the greatest chance at a championship due to their financial might coupled with baseball-operations excellence. They are gods and legends on the mightiest sports team and biggest city in the United States. Life in New York, as a Yankee, is unparalleled.

And still, each man assigns to himself a value, one borne of so many years of production, commitment, valor, leadership. Jeter is the Yankees, and Rivera is a close second. Jeter is a franchise shortstop and first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Rivera is the greatest closer ever. Both are irreplaceable, and for the Yankees to even put themselves in a position where one might be inclined to solicit other offers, let alone accept one, is irresponsible.

They've done this before. Andy Pettitte(notes) left for three years. Bernie Williams nearly jumped to Boston. After a below-standard season, the Yankees offered manager Joe Torre a lowball deal and told him to take a hike when he wouldn't agree to their terms.

Sound familiar?

Surely they don't want the same fate with Jeter. Their stance over the next 24 hours will say something. If the Yankees offer Jeter arbitration, it would attach draft-pick compensation to any team that chooses to sign him and further limit his market. It could, too, entice Jeter to accept it, earn $25 million or so on one-year deal, hope he returns to his 2009 form and go through this charade again next year.

Already the Yankees' actions have been suspect. Owner Hal Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine each went public with line-in-the-sand comments, and others close to the team have taken anonymous shots, and the opportunity the Yankees had to get a deal signed quickly is gone. They could've done the right thing: Keep everything behind closed doors, bicker about contract length and value there, and hash it out professionally. They didn't, and so this turns from a friendly game of Monopoly, in which absurd dollars are being thrown about, into one of chicken.

The team remains pedal to the metal. Pettitte left and the Yankees survived. Torre left and the Yankees thrived. The team is daring Jeter and Rivera: If you don't like what we offer, there are 29 other teams.

This is a referendum on what two men mean to a franchise – whether the Yankees are the Yankees because of their history or because of who constitutes them at any particular moment. The mystique died in the '80s when the team was bereft of stars beyond Don Mattingly as well as befallen by a miserable record, so an answer isn't obvious. If the Yankees don't bend with Jeter and Rivera, their thinking is obvious: The uniform is more important than those wearing it.

Jeter and Rivera each realize the Yankees don't want to make another mistake with an aging player, not with Alex Rodriguez(notes) and his bum hip contracted for another seven years and, if he breaks Barry Bonds' home run record, $204 million. The players also don't want to be penalized for mistakes Yankees leadership made, and if anyone deserves special treatment, it is them.

So their agents counteroffer, and they wait and wonder whether the Yankees will budge. Jeter's desires are unknown, but they're surely more than three years and more than $15 million a pop. Rivera wants a second year, and because the news so revolves around Jeter, the Yankees haven't bothered making an issue of it publicly. Which is, by no means, to say they're above that.

If we've learned anything this offseason, it's that sacred cows wear spots, not pinstripes.