By Bruce Levine-

(CBS) — The Chicago Cubs are still in the hunt for the services of free-agent left-handed pitcher Jon Lester. A source with first-hand knowledge of the teams and negotiations involved told CBSChicago.com that there’s still time in the process for all the clubs bidding on Lester.

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“I can tell you the Cubs have been on top of this situation since the beginning,” the industry source said. “They have not gone away.”

The insider refused to predict where Lester would wind up — the Red Sox and Braves are also heavily involved, and Lester’s reportedly set to meet with the Giants next week — but he did confirm that the salary of the contract could surpass $25 million per season. Along with Max Scherzer and James Shields, Lester is one of the premier free agent pitchers on the market. Scherzer and Lester and their agents will dictate where the market for No. 1 starters goes this offseason.

The relationship with Cubs executives from many years in Boston and the allure of a rebuilt franchise with quality power hitters and young talent may be intriguing enough for Lester. Lester told CBSSports.com’s John Heyman on Sept. 30 that, “I am not about signing the biggest deal. For me it is about the happiness of my family.”

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As Heyman pointed out, that could be construed to give Atlanta (his home area) or Boston (team for 12 years ) a leg up. Of course, a relationship like the one that Chicago baseball bosses Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod have with Lester could win out, too. What they have to offer may transcend traditional thinking when considering the up-and-coming Cubs over the obvious top franchises.

That the money for Lester appears to going up could induce the Cubs to fall out of contention, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Chicago held back $20 million from last year’s payroll number in order to use this offseason, if it felt like this was the time to strike. The Cubs have a new agenda toward improving the pitching corps of their organization, saying during the season that they want to add a top-line starter sometime in the next 18 months — so if not this offseason, then next or by trade before then.

Chicago bid $80 million for Anibal Sanchez in the offseason of 2012 before he ended up signing with Detroit. The Cubs also anted up what was estimated at $120 million for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka last winter, before he signed with the Yankees.

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Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144-million extension offer from Detroit last spring.