We went from not knowing whether the Cubs were definitively in on free agent starter Edwin Jackson to learning that they are once again in the final two for a semi-coveted free agent.

According to Jim Bowden, at least. He says that the Padres are now out on Jackson, who is down to the Cubs and the Rangers. Further, the reason the Padres are out? They refused to go to four years. That suggests that the Cubs (and Rangers) are willing to go to four years.

I wrote extensively about Jackson as a possible Cubs target yesterday. Among my thoughts, for those who hadn’t seen them:

To his credit, Jackson’s xFIP (which judges a pitcher’s performance only on those things he can control, and normalizes for home runs (which tend to fluctuate wildly, year to year)), has been a very solid 3.71, 3.73, 3.79 each of the last three years, despite ERAs of 4.47, 3.79, and 4.03. In other words, he may have been a fair bit better than his ERA says he was. His walk rate has been decreasing over that stretch, and his strikeout rate has been a touch higher than his career mark. Those are good signs.

And that three year stretch comes on the heels of his 3.62 ERA, 125 ERA+ 2009 All-Star season. So, let’s not be totally unfair: he’s been a good pitcher the last four years.

Against that backdrop, do you want Jackson in your rotation? Of course. Most teams would.

The price, however, is the question. Jackson went into free agency last year expecting his first big pay day, saw the market dry up, and had to settle with a one-year, $11 million deal with the Nationals. After the 2012 season, when confronted with the choice of offering Jackson a qualifying one-year, $13.5 million contract so that they could secure a draft pick if he signed elsewhere, the Nationals elected not to do so. In other words, they feared his market might be such that he would accept the one-year, $13.5 million offer. That was either a huge mis-read of the market by the Nationals, or an indication of where Jackson’s price ceiling is going to fall.

The Padres have reportedly been negotiating extensively with Jackson on a three-year deal, believed to be in the $12 million per year range (though the seriousness of those discussions is subject to some debate). The Rangers, among other teams, are believed to be interested, and Jackson is believed to prefer a four or five-year deal.

You don’t need me to explain why the Cubs would be very interested at just three years and $36 million, assuming they have interest in Jackson at all. In other words, absent some physical or clubhouse issue to which we’re not privy, I can’t fathom Jackson is going to sign for so little. In that price range, I’d be very upset if the Cubs weren’t heavily involved – especially considering that the Padres, like the Cubs, are a rebuilding organization.

But should the Cubs up the ante to four or five years, and $13 or $14 million? You could certainly make the argument, given Jackson’s durability (he’s thrown more than 189 innings each of the last four years), that he’d be worth that investment. He’s not a difference-maker in the way Sanchez could have been, but he could be a part of the Cubs’ next competitive rotation. With Jackson in place through, say 2016, the Cubs would have a fair excuse to push to lock up Matt Garza for the same range, and they would then have Garza, Jackson, and Jeff Samardzija all in place for their likely next competitive window. A great team would need another starter (preferably an ace), but that’s not a bad pitching core.

Ultimately, I concluded that Jackson would be an acceptable target for the Cubs, even if he isn’t a substitute for Anibal Sanchez.

The Rangers, like the Cubs (more so, even), have missed out on their preferred targets this offseason, and could be looking at Jackson as their one last chance to get a guy they really want. Or, like the Cubs, Jackson could be a back-up plan for whom they aren’t willing to go to the mat. It seems like, if it really is down to the Rangers and the Cubs, each team has an incentive to bid aggressively – which means the “winner” could be staring down a dicey four-year, $52 to $56 million contract.

Or, some other team will swoop in and grab him.

We’ll just have to see where this goes.

MINOR UPDATE: A couple quick addendums: Keep in mind that Bowden was one of the few media folks erroneously who piggy-backed on the Bob Nightengale report that the Cubs had signed Anibal Sanchez. Also, if the money is even, I think the Cubs will have a tough time beating out Jackson, unless they can convince him that pitching at Wrigley is much better for him (probably true), and that the team will be very good very soon (dicier). The Rangers are good, and they’re set up to be good for a little while yet. Hard to get mad at a free agent for choosing them unless the Cubs go over the top with the money.

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