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Cratering Cubs look, sound like a team that’s close to the bitter end

According to one of the Cubs’ pending free agents, the way the team plays sometimes “doesn’t match.” If that’s becoming the norm, it’s probably time to take a match to the whole thing.

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs
Anthony Rizzo reacts to being called out on strikes.
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Trade deadline? What trade deadline?

Cubs shortstop Javy Baez doesn’t know about any stinking trade deadline.

“To be honest, I don’t know what to tell you about this trade deadline,” he said Monday night after the team’s unthinkable losing streak hit the double-digit mark at 10. “I’m really not paying attention to it. If anything happened, it would be a surprise to me.”

A surprise would be the Cubs — seemingly past the point of no return in their free-fall out of the playoff picture — getting to July 30 without throwing in the towel.

An even bigger surprise would be a pending free agent hoping for a nine-figure contract not having his future — short- and long-term — on his mind as his team craters with the longest Cubs losing streak since the 101-loss 2012 squad dropped 12 straight.

The day that awful Cubs team lost No. 12, staff ace Ryan Dempster — his contract up at the end of the season — was asked if the trade deadline was on his mind and gave a straight answer. Really, it was the only sensible answer.

“I’m not an idiot,” he said. “I know how things go. I know how it goes with players in contract years and the team not necessarily doing like they’re supposed to be doing. There’s always a possibility of things. There’s a possibility of being traded any time.”

Sure enough, Dempster was shipped away at the deadline in the deal with the Rangers that brought Kyle Hendricks to the Cubs. Which, by the way, is a good reminder that these painful transactions can work out wonderfully for the team that isn’t in postseason-or-bust mode.

Another reminder: Look at Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez with the White Sox, who traded Jose Quintana for them in 2017 and are mighty glad they did. And that deal went down nearly three weeks before the deadline, which basically is where we are at present.

(I’d tell you to look at Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego, but I’m not that cruel so let’s pretend I never brought it up.)

The Cubs sure don’t seem to be in postseason-or-bust mode. If they are, they have a funny way of showing it. But several of their core pieces might be in any-day-now mode. As in waking up and wondering: “Is today my last day in a Cubs uniform?”

“You can’t get into each individual’s mind and what they’re thinking,” manager David Ross said. “But I think the main focus, for me, is we do have to focus on the day-to-day, especially in the middle of what we’re going through. …

“You start getting out and thinking narratives or contracts or trades or end of the season — losing the division, winning the division — all those things that can creep into your mind doesn’t do anything for us.”

But the stress and strain the Cubs are experiencing is evident. It played into Ross getting himself ejected Monday, which, to his credit, he later owned by acknowledging that home-plate umpire Nic Lentz’s key non-strike call with Phillies star Bryce Harper at the plate had been correct. It mitigated Kris Bryant’s reaction Sunday to his fourth All-Star honor.

“It’s definitely hard with the rut that we’re in right now,” Bryant said, “but a little good news, you know, is nice.”

What does this season’s individual success mean to Bryant, another pending free agent? It means putting himself in better position to be paid like a franchise cornerstone with a team that’s on the upswing. How could his mind not be on that?

“I know what type of player I am,” he said. “I know what I bring to a team and what I bring to a city, and it’s nice to be recognized for that.”

It beats the heck out of being recognized for a colossal losing streak. Or for surprising and tantalizing fans into mid-June by playing at a 95-win pace, only to come down like a house of cards. Or for, it seems, nearing the bitter end of a Cubs era with one lonely, magnificent World Series banner.

“I mean, it’s not fun, let me tell you that,” Baez himself said.

What has gone wrong? As Baez explains it, the core problem is a trend of certain key elements working while others malfunction. Pitch well, but don’t hit. Hit well, but don’t pitch. It’s actually pretty basic stuff.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it just doesn’t match, the way we play.”

And sometimes? It just doesn’t match, the way a team is put together.