Yanks’ treatment of Jeter puzzling

I get it. We all get it. The Yankees want to base Derek Jeter’s next contract on his on-field performance. Their first offer of $45 million over three years hardly was insulting. Jeter, as important as he is to the team, does not merit a blank check.

Just answer me this:

Why are the Yankees taking such a harsh stance, devaluing their franchise player and effectively damaging their own brand?

Is Jeter asking for that large a contract? Do all those empty premium seats at the new Yankee Stadium have club officials spooked? Are the Yankees trying to send a message to their other free agents, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte?

What is it?

The Yankees actually might prevail over Jeter in the court of public opinion; fans always get more upset with greedy players than greedy owners. But in a sense, the team has already lost by getting so snippy with Jeter.

Eventually, all of the rancor will diminish and the two sides will reach an agreement, probably on a three or four-year deal worth $18 million to $20 million per season.

But Jeter might not easily forgive.

The Yankees have overpaid for countless other players, virtually all of them inferior to Jeter. Rarely do they draw the line in contract negotiations, as they’ll soon demonstrate again in their all-out bid for Cliff Lee.

Now they’re going to start? With Jeter, of all players?

Though the numbers might suggest otherwise, Jeter doesn’t see himself as Marco Scutaro. Nor should he. Not after helping the Yankees enhance their brand to the point where they could start their own regional TV network, build a new stadium and, yes, generate enough revenue to buy players such as — ahem — Alex Rodriguez.

Yes, Jeter is 36. Yes, his decline only figures to accelerate. Yes, the question of how long he’ll remain at shortstop is a real issue.

But his on-field performance next season is almost certain to include his 3,000th hit. Jeter is 74 hits shy of the milestone, and let’s just say the Yankees are going to make a little extra coin when he gets there.

The Yankees say they’re already accounting for Jeter’s special contributions by offering him $15 million per season. General manager Brian Cashman is even encouraging Jeter to test the market, implying that no other team would match the Yankees’ largesse.

That’s probably true. But it’s still not the right way to treat Jeter, who has said barely a word publicly, and whose agent, Casey Close, has said nothing stronger than he finds the Yankees’ negotiating strategy “baffling.”

There’s this theory that Jeter needs the Yankees more than the Yankees need him — the franchise will endure, while Jeter’s image is tied to his loyalty to the franchise. That, too, might be true. But the moment Jeter retires, what more will he need from the Yankees?

His image likely will be pristine — he’ll be remembered as the one player who always said and did the right thing. He could buy another team, abandon the Yankees’ universe entirely and still be Derek Jeter.

The Yankees? Their tradition’s a big part of their image. Jeter, the rightful heir to Mantle, DiMaggio and Ruth, represents a new generation of living legend. And, as good as Robinson Cano is, as good as any Yankees prospect might be, there isn’t another Jeter on the horizon.

The two sides need each other. Always have, always will. That’ll be the theme in the end, at the news conference announcing Jeter’s new contract.

It should have been the theme all along.

The Yankees’ lack of tact is serving neither side well.

AND MR. LEE?

The Yankees, according to a major-league source, did not make a six-year, $140 million offer to Lee, as reported by Yahoo! Sports.

The reported figure could end up very close to the deal Lee eventually receives, but it’s difficult to believe the Yankees would start at six years, even as a warning shot to the Rangers and other interested clubs.

The Yankees gave CC Sabathia a seven-year deal when he was 28. For Lee, 32, a six-year deal would be much more of a risk. The final three years of such a contract would run from ages 35 to 37.

The idea of Lee’s holding out for a seventh year, as reported by Yahoo!, seems remote. Even Lee’s representatives would be surprised if the pitcher received an offer that matched Sabathia’s in length.

AN INTRIGUING NEW OPTION FOR TEXAS

A report in Venezuela’s El Nacional mentioned the Red Sox, White Sox and Orioles as the losing bidders for free-agent catcher Victor Martinez. The Rangers were interested in Martinez, but never actually made an offer, a major-league source said.

The Rangers continue to talk with Vladimir Guerrero, to whom they did not offer arbitration. According to the source, they’re also showing interest in a surprising name: free-agent first baseman Paul Konerko.

Such a move would make sense, considering the Rangers were willing to sign Martinez in addition to Cliff Lee, as previously reported by FOXSports.com.

Konerko, if he doesn’t stay with the White Sox, would prefer to join a team near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Rangers aren’t as close as the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Angels, but the club trains in Arizona and the flight from Dallas to Phoenix is only about 2.5 hours. From Chicago to Phoenix, it’s about four.

The White Sox offered salary arbitration to Konerko, but that shouldn’t be a deterrent to the Rangers, who were willing to sacrifice their first-round pick for Martinez.

That selection, due to the team’s 90-win season, will be only No. 26 overall. The Rangers wouldn’t lose a pick if they re-signed Lee and gain one — likely a first rounder — if he signs with another club.

Another White Sox free agent, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, also could be a possibility for the Rangers, who are looking for catching help. The White Sox didn’t offer Pierzynski arbitration, so a team can sign him without forfeiting a pick.

THE MYSTERY TEAM ON HUFF

After re-signing free-agent first baseman Aubrey Huff to a two-year, $22 million contract, Giants GM Brian Sabean told reporters, “One other club accelerated their interest and we played tag with that and were able to get in a position where we matched what the other club did.”

Who was that other club?

The Dodgers, according to major-league sources.

It couldn’t be confirmed whether the Dodgers actually matched the Giants’ offer, but the team had definite interest in Huff, sources said.

Huff, who turns 34 on Dec. 20, could have fit the Dodgers at first base if the team traded James Loney or in left field as an upgrade over Jay Gibbons.

The flexibility of the Dodgers’ roster gives the club numerous options. The team can move Casey Blake to left if it finds a third baseman, and they also could add another middle-infield type as insurance for shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Ryan Theriot.

TAKE IT AWAY, RAYS

If there’s a silver lining to the Rays’ trying offseason, it’s that the loss of so many free agents will leave them well-positioned for the talent-laden 2011 draft.

The Rays offered salary arbitration to seven of their nine free agents. If all seven depart, the club will gain 10 high picks as compensation.

The team’s virtually certain to receive four picks in the upper rounds for two of their Type A free agents: outfielder Carl Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano. Their other Type A, reliever Grant Balfour, could accept arbitration and receive a raise from $2.05 million.

The Rays will receive a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds for losing reliever Joaquin Benoit, one of their four Type B free agents.

Meanwhile, the Jays are in position to gain seven picks after offering arbitration to all five of their free agents.

The Jays’ two Type A free agents, relievers Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, will yield first-round selections only if they’re the first Type A’s signed by their new clubs, which is doubtful.

AROUND THE HORN

• The Phillies internally discussed bringing back free-agent outfielder Pat Burrell, but determined he simply wasn’t a fit.

Neither Burrell nor Raul Ibanez is suited for right field at this stage of their respective careers, and an outfield that included both of them would be awfully slow.

The Phillies could go with a platoon of Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown rather than sign another outfielder if they lose free agent Jayson Werth.

• Free agent Lance Berkman said Tuesday he isn’t ready to be a full-time DH, a stance that seemingly would make it difficult for him to sign with his most fervent suitor, the A’s.

Or maybe not.

While the A’s boast excellent defenders at first base and the outfield corners, they likely would rotate Berkman into those positions, giving their regulars a rest.

Berkman, who turns 35 on Feb. 10 and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last March, also could benefit physically from serving as a part-time DH.

• The Twins offered arbitration to second baseman Orlando Hudson, a Type B free agent, but almost certainly under the condition that Hudson would reject.

Teams often make such gentlemen’s agreements with Type B free agents in order to collect a supplement draft pick. No harm is done to the signing team, which doesn’t lose a pick.

The Twins, when they signed Hudson to a one-year, $5 million free-agent contract, agreed not to offer him arbitration if he was a Type A free agent. Hudson likely reciprocated by agreeing not to accept if he was a Type B.

• The Marlins engaged in extensive discussions Tuesday with the representatives for free-agent right-hander Javier Vazquez, according to major-league sources.

The question now is whether the Marlins are in a flexible enough financial position to sign Vazquez.

One source says the team has $3 million to $4 million left to spend. Another source suggests the number’s closer to $8 million. Vazquez might require a higher amount.

• Free-agent outfielder Eric Hinske is close to deciding between the Braves and Brewers, according to a major-league source.

If the offers are close, Hinske probably will opt for the Braves, who stand a better chance of reaching the postseason.

Hinske, 33, has appeared in the playoffs in each of the past four years.

• The Rockies love the upside of newly acquired right-hander Felipe Paulino and also will consider righty Esmil Rogers for a spot in the rotation.

They’ll need such options, because they’re reluctant to commit big money to one of the remaining free-agent starters.

More likely, the team will bottom-feed in January.