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Cubs lean on help from unexpected rookies at midpoint of season

Chicago Cubs' Willson Contreras celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Monday, July 4, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

If anyone thought the Cubs’ roster couldn’t get any younger, think again.

Like they did last season, the Cubs are leaning on rookies as they near the All-Star break. The difference this time is that this wasn’t the plan for a team that expects to compete for a World Series title.

But the combination of injuries to several major-leaguers and quick starts in the minors by key prospects has outfielder Albert Almora Jr., catcher Willson Contreras and infielder Jeimer Candelario playing significant roles for the Cubs.

‘‘You didn’t expect all of them at one time and this early in the year,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘Normally this is the kind of group that comes up in the latter part of the year. Maybe one at a time you fit them in. But for them to be here in June and July, that’s kind of unusual.’’

The Cubs’ fast start this season and their big cushion in the NL Central give them the luxury of getting the rookies valuable big-league exposure well before the team might have to learn the hard way whether they can handle big-league responsibility.

‘‘Based on our position right now, the fact we got off to the good start and put ourselves in a good spot, it’s the perfect time to give these guys opportunity,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘It’s only going to help us down the road.’’

The rookies the Cubs planned to be part of a championship run were supposed to be the ones who were called up last season. If any of these three can contribute, it’s a bonus.

It’s already looking as though Contreras might be in the majors to stay. Maddon has compared Contreras to Kyle Schwarber, whose midseason arrival last season was one reason for the Cubs’ torrid finish.

Contreras has hit more home runs in a little more than two weeks (five) than Jason Heyward (four) and Miguel Montero (four) have all season. He is looking better behind the plate with each start and even has shown the ability to handle

left field.

‘‘[Contreras has] been impressive,’’ Montero said. ‘‘He can make all the throws and play at different spots. They’ve all adjusted nicely and shown they belong.’’

Almora already is considered the best outfielder on a roster that features a three-time Gold Glove winner in Heyward. He’s also hitting .286 with seven extra-base hits.

Candelario made his big-league debut Sunday and might wind up back in the minors Wednesday, when the Cubs make a few roster moves. But he made a strong first impression, getting his first hit — a single — against Mets flame-thrower Noah Syndergaard.

Still, for as much ability as they’ve shown, it hasn’t kept the Cubs from losing 11 of their last 16 games. And it hasn’t always looked pretty, like when Almora collided with Kris Bryant in left-center field Monday.

But the Cubs are confident the unexpected debuts, however premature, will be a benefit as they near the playoffs.

It’s even possible Candelario’s brief stint in the majors will pay off if he becomes part of the Cubs’ effort to deal for pitching as the Aug. 1 trade deadline nears.

‘‘It’s been condensed in a lot of the crucial moments that we’ve had more recently,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘But we’ve held our own. They’re very talented, and it does speak well for the present and the future.’’

Follow me on Twitter @JCTSports.

Email: jtolentino@suntimes.com