By Bruce Levine-

(CBS) Will the James Shields free agent drama end soon? More importantly, will the Chicago Cubs come out as the surprise winner in this intriguing story that has dragged on for one of the top pitchers in the game?

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After months of looking for a five-year or longer deal, Shields and his agent have had to modify their hopes of a $100-million payday for the 33-year-old veteran. Shields was projected as part of the “Big Three” free agent pitchers available this offseason. The first of that group to sign was Jon Lester with the Cubs. Lester’s deal, $155 million for six years, was the largest contract in Cubs’ history.

Next up was Max Scherzer, who signed a seven-year, $210-million contract with Washington last month. His new deal averages $30 million per season over the life of the contract and is the second-richest pitcher’s contract ever.

With Scherzer averaging $30 million and Lester $26 million a season, Shields’ camp certainly felt with big-market teams still looking for starting pitching that a mega-deal with at least a $100-million pay day was realistic. That apparently hasn’t been the case. It appears teams like the Cubs, sensing a weaker market for the durable pitcher, began lining up with three-year offers the past 10 days.

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The Padres appeared to have had a solid offer in place on Friday. Numerous outlets had reported that Shields would be a Padre pitcher by Saturday. A four-year, $80-million contract is probably the best that Shields can hope for at this juncture. A $20 million average is certainly nothing to hang your head about.

The durability of Shilds has been a plus and minus in the talks with many clubs. Shields has averaged the second-most innings pitched in baseball over the last seven seasons. Many GMs look at this with admiration, while others are skeptical over how long a power pitcher can hold up when deciding on a long-term commitment.

The Cubs would love to escalate their World Series aspirations by signing Shields to a shorter-term contract. Although the Shields offer would make sense for Chicago, it may be more prudent to wait for the free agent crop that includes Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and David Price next fall.

Some reports have had Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Lester both contacting Shields this week. This was a tactical measure the organization used in its all-out effort to bring Shields to Chicago. By having former teammates and current personnel as part of the process, a free agent can get a comfort level that can turn the tide of a negotiation.

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Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.