The Chicago Cubs could be in store for big changes. Actually, they've made one lately.
They're winning — and in a big way.
With 14 victories in 19 games after beating the Miami Marlins on Thursday, the Cubs are on a major roll after taking a beating most of the season.
They are fifth in the NL Central and miles away from contention at 38-53, but they can at least feel good about the way they've played of late. Even if this recent run is nothing more than an aberration, it's a welcome one for a team that still has one of the worst records in the majors.
"It's something we knew that was there," All-Star Bryan LaHair said. "We had some good pieces to win."
It's something they haven't done enough of this season — or the past few, for that matter. They are in the early stages of an overhaul with new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer in charge, and they have spent much of the year in last place.
The bullpen, particularly Carlos Marmol, has struggled at times. All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro has had his share of mental and physical lapses in the field, but the Cubs are playing better these days. Even so, the starting rotation appears to be in for a shake-up at the top with two attractive trade assets in Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza on the block.
These are strange times on Chicago's North Side. But while the trade winds blow around them, the Cubs can at least take a little breath.
"I've been a part of young clubs," Garza said. "There's growing pains. Obviously, we're right in a good run right now, but the growing pains aren't over."
The struggles, he said, were "a test for us."
With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaching, Garza and Dempster might not be around when the final grades are revealed. Both pitchers would be attractive for contenders, and with the Cubs building for the future, there is plenty of speculation that they could be on the way out.
Epstein and Hoyer were brought in to help turn around a team that fell apart after winning the division in 2007 and 2008, and bring the Cubs their first World Series title since 1908. No small task.
Then again, they helped build two championship winners and ended the Red Sox' long drought in Boston.
Whether they can make the Cubs contenders next season remains to be seen.
"It's the starting pitching that's going to dictate everything," manager Dale Sveum said. "You get quality starting pitching. I think our offense is going to gradually going to get better and better. But I think when you go into the season, you'll still put a competitive team together. You have to have all the pieces, though."
It is ironic that their top two starters are on the market, but the returns could be high.
Garza is 28, and with a 4.02 ERA, he is having a solid season even if his record is only 5-7. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in all but four of his 17 starts.
Dempster, meanwhile, is throwing as well as anyone in the game.
He enters Friday's start against the St. Louis Cardinals with 33 consecutive scoreless innings, five straight wins and a major league-best 1.86 ERA. The veteran can veto a trade and said he didn't know of any imminent deals.
"It's flattering for me to know that a lot of teams want you, but at the same time, I just worry about doing my job," Dempster said.
So does the right-handed Garza, who said the rumors don't faze him.
"It's not like it's my first time," said Garza, who was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay before last season. "I've been in rumors since 2006. It's the least of my worries right now."
If Dempster and Garza are dealt, the Cubs believe they have a potential ace in Jeff Samardzija.
Sveum has seen enough from the former Notre Dame football star to think he could lead the rotation even though he is just over halfway through his first season as a starter. Samardzija spent his first four years mainly as a reliever, but he has pitched well enough to convince the Cubs he can succeed as a starter.
"He's that guy we all feel we have a chance of building a rotation on," Sveum said. "We'll see what happens here in the next couple of weeks. He's that guy. He's going to be that guy that hopefully we can build around and be the No. 1, be the No. 2 guy."
Samardzija understands his role could be growing.
"I'm really trying to do everything I can today so down the road when you are relied upon, you're ready to take the reins and do what you've got to do," he said. "Is that the situation I want? Obviously, I want to be the guy, but it also would help to have Dempster and Garza throwing in front of you or behind you. You just don't know what's going to happen."