It's Cubs or bust for Peavy

LAS VEGAS -- Before we discuss where Jake Peavy is going to play next season, let's eliminate all the places we now know the Padres ace won't be playing next season:

Atlanta. Houston. The Bronx. Anaheim. Tokyo. Quad Cities. And, just to cover all the hot spots on the atlas, he won't be playing in Maui, Aruba or Kazakhstan, either.

We learned that Monday from San Diego's Kevin Towers, the only GM Peavy has ever played for. Now to be totally honest, Towers never did specifically mention Kazakhstan. Or even Quad Cities, for that matter.

But he did say that Peavy and his agent, Barry Axelrod, have made it clear to the Padres that the 27-year-old right-hander has no interest in expanding the list of cities Peavy is willing to waive his no-trade clause to play in.

So that means this story is now as clear as the 9,000 glass doors that lead you into or out of the Bellagio, where the winter meetings are unfolding this week in all their casino-laden glory.

Either Peavy is going to be traded to the Cubs real, real soon. Or he's going to be staying in San Diego. Period.

It means the Yankees can stop dialing Towers' number. It means the Angels can stop kicking around Peavy's name as an alternative if they don't land a big free agent. And it means there is now clear-cut winter-meetings drama in the air.

By the end of this week, Towers said, he needs to "have a good feeling" that there's a deal with the Cubs to be made. Or else it's time to stop talking about this oft, oft, oft, oft, oft-rumored trade and start thinking about how to build the 2009 Padres with Peavy still on the roster.

And the payroll.

"Our big focus," Towers said, "is, by Thursday, we need to know if there's a deal to be made or not. And if there's not, it's time to make a statement to our fans that Jake will be with us next season."

The trade itself -- potentially a three-team or even four-team extravaganza involving as many as 10 players -- does not have to be completed by the end of the meetings, Towers said. But this process has to be completed by "shortly after we leave here," the GM said.

"If we haven't made any progress or we're in the same place … if it looks like it's not going to work out, then we need to let our fans know that," Towers said. "I don't want to go into the Christmas holiday with this many holes in our club. So at some point we need to say to our fans that Jake will be with us and we'll just need to fill those holes around him."

There was a point late Monday when it looked as if that trade might actually be imminent, after a Chicago Sun-Times report that a deal was "very close," according to a source close to Cubs GM Jim Hendry. But another Cubs source told ESPN.com on Tuesday that no deal for Peavy was even "remotely close."

So that means the Cubs and Padres will have to keep on trying to overcome the two major obstacles that have held up this deal for weeks now.

One is that the Cubs don't have the pitching prospects the Padres are looking for, so they've needed to involve a third, or even a fourth, team -- which appear to be Baltimore and Philadelphia. The second issue is the Cubs' muddled ownership situation, which seemed to get even more dicey Monday, when the Tribune Company went the dreaded Chapter 11 route.

But Hendry, though he wouldn't address Peavy by name or this deal specifically, said Monday that he has been given assurances by his higher-ups that he can continue to do business as close to normal as possible.

"All I know is that I was told over the weekend by my bosses that the Cubs are completely separate [from the Tribune Company's financial issues]," Hendry said. "We're not worried about having any problems at all. New ownership will be taking over in the next couple of months. There are no restrictions put on me."

But other sources familiar with the Cubs' situation say that isn't entirely accurate. Any major addition -- whether it's Peavy or a left-handed-hitting free-agent outfielder such as Raul Ibanez -- needs to be approved by ownership. And Hendry also has been told that every big addition to the payroll will need to be accompanied by a payroll reduction -- if not before the addition of new players then certainly before Opening Day.

Hendry's payroll is increasing, from just north of $123 million last year to about $135 million this year. But the signing of Ryan Dempster, and other increases, will eat up much of that payroll hike. So the Cubs are actively looking to move Jason Marquis (due to make $9.875 million in 2009), and possibly another piece or two, to clear dollars for Peavy and/or an outfielder.

"Honestly," Hendry said, "it's my job … if you want to add significant dollars, then I should be able to move some, too. That's part of my job. It doesn't take a lot of creativity if you just spend the most money and buy the most expensive player all the time. As a general manager, I feel an obligation that if we want to do a few things -- instead of one thing or two things -- then we've got to get creative."

And that means it's time for Hendry and Towers -- two guys who have been friends for more than 20 years, since Hendry was a college baseball coach and Towers was an area scout -- to get to work.

They haven't had a formal meeting yet since they arrived at these meetings. But Hendry said: "I'm sure we won't get to Thursday without having a chat."

One of the big questions hovering over that chat will be how much pressure the Padres are under to move Peavy, who is scheduled to make $11 million next season for a team whose payroll is in the midst of plummeting as close to $40 million as Towers can cut it.

"That will be tough," Towers said. "That's almost a quarter of our payroll. And it makes it tough to improve a great deal on the field. But I still consider Jake to be a tremendous asset. He's one of the best pitchers in the game. I'd much rather go into the season with a guy who's an established No. 1 [starter], and hopefully our young players are as good as we think they are, and improve that way, versus doing a poor baseball deal just because he's making a quarter of our payroll."

Executives from other teams have been saying this week that they think it's now in the Padres' best interests to hang on to Peavy until the trading deadline and try to move him then, when there's no CC Sabathia or A.J. Burnett out there for teams to acquire without giving up any players. If the Padres trade him in late July, they would have to pay him only about $7 million for two-thirds of the season.

But Towers admitted he doesn't know yet whether Peavy would even approve a trade in midseason.

"You know, I think that becomes a bit difficult on a player, starting a season knowing that in two or three months he may not be there for the full season," Towers said. "We told Barry we'd explore trade possibilities this winter, and if it doesn't work out we'd be happy to start the season where we're at and then we'll reevaluate where we're at come June or July."

But this is no time to be worrying about June or July. This is a time to worry about whether this deal can be done in the next week.

Hendry tried to downplay talk that he has the framework of any deal in place -- for anybody -- saying: "Things could change in a lot of different directions before Christmas. … I really don't have any clear feeling on which way this could go."

But all signs now point toward Peavy's becoming a Cub, simply because the Padres -- after holding out for weeks for the sweetest deal possible -- now appear to have no other option. That deal most likely won't go down this week. But given the deadline Towers laid out Monday, it would have to get done by the time Hendry and Cubs manager Lou Piniella start unwrapping their Christmas gifts.

And if the Cubs look under their tree and find a rotation of Peavy, Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden and Ted Lilly, that would be a gift even the next owner of the Cubs wouldn't feel really interested in returning.

"I don't think any of the people who are involved in wanting to buy the Cubs would have any interest in anything other than trying to win championships," Hendry said.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.