Contreras among Cubs prospects opening eyes

Contreras among Cubs prospects opening eyes

CHICAGO -- Ben Zobrist isn't just helping the Cubs, he's influencing the Minor League system as well.

Zobrist, who celebrated his 35th birthday on Thursday, leads the National League in on-base percentage (.453), and he's ranked among the top three in batting average (.346). Zobrist has reached safely in his past 31 starts -- he went 3-for-5 on Wednesday against the Cardinals -- and getting on base is a message Andy Haines, the Cubs' Minor League hitting coordinator, is trying to emphasize to prospects.

"There's nobody who's a bigger fan of Ben than I am," said Haines, whose younger brother Kyle played against Zobrist. "He's the definition of what you want Major League Baseball players to be. The Major Leagues are very complicated, and Ben's not complicated. He's so simple -- you know when you're around him, he has one goal.

• Cubs' Top 30 Prospects list

"He gets on base, he's going to have great at-bats, and that's our culture offensively of what we want to be -- it's more than getting hits. It's easy for these kids to think offense is getting their hits. We preach that it's way more than getting hits. Ben is the prototype for that, no question about it."

Haines, in his first season with the Cubs' organization, joined the big league team in St. Louis, and he gave an update on some of the top Minor League prospects.

• Willson Contreras is ranked No. 2 among the Cubs' top prospects on MLBPipeline.com's list, and the 24-year-old catcher has lived up to the hype.

"He's been better than advertised, which is almost impossible," Haines said of Contreras, who is batting .326 at Triple-A Iowa. "Coming in new to the organization, you're just anxious to lay your eyes on him and to see if he meets those expectations. He's so talented.

"He's one of those guys who doesn't come around very often. I think for players, too, what goes unnoticed is how hard it is for a player like that because he can smell Chicago. He certainly doesn't want to be in Iowa. For him to stay engaged and locked in where he's at speaks volumes about Willson and the staff there and so many people who have helped him. To me, that's impressive."

Haines has seen steady improvement from outfielder Albert Almora, 22, the Cubs' No. 1 Draft pick in 2012 who's also batting .326 at Iowa. Almora made some mechanical adjustments at the end of last season at Double-A Tennessee, and he has been able to carry that over.

"The defense is something that stands out," Haines said of Almora. "Being a hitting guy, you're watching the offense, but you watch him play center field and the plays he makes [are amazing]."

• At Tennessee, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, 22, and right fielder Billy McKinney, 21, stand out. Haines has made three trips to see the Smokies this season.

"The peripheral numbers are strong," Haines said of Candelario. "His average isn't where you want it to be, but he controls the zone, he's going to slug, he's going to do all those things well. When you look at the average, you think, 'Oh, he's off to a slow start,' but there are numbers there that show he's turning it around."

Candelario was in the Cubs' big league Spring Training camp for the first time this year, and he did well. It's tough to be around the big leaguers and then open in the Southern League.

"In their heart and their mind, they want to be a part of this so bad," Haines said. "The message to all of those guys is the same: 'Your time is coming. Just be right where your feet are.' As hard as that is -- it's human nature to want to look ahead and want to be here. The Southern League or wherever you're at, those leagues aren't easy. You have to have 100 percent of yourself engaged at that level."

• At Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach, a player to keep an eye on is center fielder Rashad Crawford, 22, who was an 11th-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. He's batting .244 at Myrtle Beach, with 10 doubles, three triples, two homers and a .345 on-base percentage.

"You don't hear a lot about him," Haines said. "That's one guy who, when you watch him on the field, you dream about what this guy can be."

• At Class A South Bend, outfielder Eloy Jimenez, 19, stands out among the prospects.

"He's off to a great start," Haines said of the team's No. 10-ranked player, who was batting .335. "When you're around him, you gravitate toward him. He loves the game, he loves his team. That's a fun team in South Bend -- they love playing together."

Haines also likes No. 12-ranked player Donnie Dewees, a 22-year-old outfielder who was batting .290 with nine doubles, eight triples and two home runs.

"He's been the talk of the organization," Haines said. "Everywhere I go, I'm told how impressive Dewees is to watch play. He's a guy who energizes the team. He's the definition of high energy and a really good baseball player. You hear the word throwback with him, because he never takes a pitch off."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.