[Cubs GM Jim Hendry, demonstrating just how much of Bradley’s contract he could eat.]

Who wants to pay Milton Bradley $21 million over two years?  Or, how much of that $21 mil will Jim Hendry eat to get rid of him?  That’s been the major question since Jim Hendry threw his temper tantrum over Bradley last fall.  While Hendry’s championship-free reign in Chi continues, the team most frequently rumored as Bradley’s next stop are the Rays (if the Rays can move Pat Burrell), Texas (if the Cubs will eat MB’s paycheck), Kansas City (for Gil Meche), and New York (for Castillo).  Bradley got a raw deal from Chicago fans and media on day one and spent the rest of the season exceeding their expectations.  Right now, according to The Sun-Times‘ Gordon Wittenmyer, who wrote that’09 Jackie Robinson Day piece asking Bradley to stop being so damn uppity, says the Rays look to be the best bet so far:

And Joe Maddon’s first impressions of Bradley when the two had lunch together last offseason are a big part of what makes his Tampa Bay Rays the front-runner to acquire Bradley this offseason — maybe during the winter meetings that begin this week.The Cubs are trying to avoid another Sammy Sosa-like saga that played out until February after a split was proved necessary on the final day of the 2004 regular season. And their offseason plans depend on it.

The next three days could be the most critical in the process — with team officials optimistic a deal might get done during this week’s meetings, or at least enough groundwork completed to make a deal imminent by the time baseball execs scatter by late Thursday.

Tampa Bay remains the likeliest destination for Bradley, with a Rays source reiterating significant interest again Sunday night — but only if the Rays can move big-salaried left fielder Pat Burrell in the process.

Burrell is owed $9 million for one more year of his contract; Bradley, $9 million in 2010, $12 million in 2011 plus a small amount of his original $4 million signing bonus. How the sides reconcile Bradley’s ’11 salary and where the defensively limited Burrell eventually lands are the issues that have prevented a deal from getting done before now.

That much of the framework has been in place for more than a month, with little movement since the general managers meetings in early November. The New York Mets talked at one point to the Cubs about being a third wheel in a trade, with second baseman Luis Castillo possibly going to the Cubs — a scenario that no longer looks likely.