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MLB

Best up-the-middle combinations in the MLB

All across the MLB, teams are focusing their drafting and developing efforts on shoring up the core of their team, emphasizing the quality of players up the middle. From catcher to pitcher, then from second baseman/shortstop to center field, teams are taking an up the middle approach to filling out their franchises.

Looking at the sport of baseball, these seem to be some of the most important positions in the field, as the pitcher will obviously put the ball into play, the catcher will control the game speed and pitch type, the second baseman or shortstop will call out various defensive shifts and helps start defensive double plays, and the center fielder is the captain of the outfield, controlling various alignments and having back-up duties on any balls hit to either field.

The criteria for this list is pretty straight forward: all teams that have above-average starters at these four positions are considered and ranked, with the five best teams put in this list. Let’s just jump right into it.

#5 Milwaukee Brewers

C Yasmani Grandal
SP Brandon Woodruff
2B Keston Hiura
CF Lorenzo Cain

Relying very heavily on their 2018 National League MVP, Christian Yelich to carry the load on the offense this season, the Milwaukee Brewers have been nothing short of disappointing. For their sake, however, the entirety of the NL Central has been just as trashy as they have, so even with barely being above .500, they are more than in the thick of the divisional race.

Going from catcher to center field, the Brewers read Yasmani Grandal, Brandon Woodruff, Keston Hiura, and Lorenzo Cain. Grandal and Hiura both made their Brewers debuts this season, as Hiura has cemented himself as the team’s starting second baseman and Grandal took a one year deal over the offseason after sweating out the very dry free agency period.

This team is strong up the middle, but Cain has been showing his age this year, fighting through various injuries while not looking like himself at the plate. His defensive metrics are still very high and he has not fallen off there, but his decision making seems to be at an odd impasse of sorts.

Woodruff has been this team’s ace this season, and especially with how their starting rotation is comprised, there was a need for someone to step up into that leadership role. Led by Grandal’s above-average pitch framing abilities, as well as his offensive outburst this season, and they have the right pieces in the right spots to get back on track and make it two seasons in a row with a playoff appearance.

#4 New York Yankees

C Gary Sanchez
SP Masahiro Tanaka
2B Gleyber Torres
CF Aaron Hicks

While each of these five MLB teams has some sort of weakness at one of the four core spots, the New York Yankees have lived with what they have and have actually turned that weakness into at least an averaging out. Aaron Hicks is the weakest link of these four roles, and yet his production has increased to the point in 2019 that he is turning the corner and leaving the label of just being “serviceable” behind.

Sanchez seems to finally have come into his own, which is exactly what the Yankees were looking for, finally having that franchise cornerstone backstop they have yearned for forever since the retirement of team legend Jorge Posada. Combining the game-calling skills that Sanchez has been developing with the pitching of Tanaka, and this team has a lot of reasons why they are leading the American League East division.

Gleyber Torres is living up to his prospect billing in a big way, flashing the leather out on the diamond while hitting at a good clip. After having been moved around as the big chip in different trades (i.e. the Aroldis Chapman deal with the Chicago Cubs in 2016), Torres is finally at home in the Pinstripes, something that Yankee fans should get used to seeing for a long, long time.

#3 Boston Red Sox

C Christian Vazquez
SP Chris Sale
SS Xander Bogaerts
CF Jackie Bradley Jr.

One of the lists’ entrants that focuses on the shortstop position instead of the second baseman, the reigning world champion Boston Red Sox seem to finally have established that up-the-middle combination that most teams can only dream of.

While Christian Vazquez still is a bit of a weak spot behind the plate, his offensive numbers have skyrocketed this MLB season, and the 28-year-old looks to be on his way to finding his full potential, similar to the process that Sanchez of the Yankees has done recently too.

Chris Sale is Chris Sale, no real introduction or description needed for him, although 2019 has not been all that kind to him so far. Xander Bogaerts is turning in a fantastic season, one that could see him garner a decent amount of AL MVP votes in the race.

Jackie Bradley Jr. looks to be the other BoSox player who will take votes away from Bogaerts, as his season has been outstanding as well. This team has a solid core up the middle and, provided they dig themselves out of their early-season hole, has a solid chance to make it back to the playoffs this season.

#2 Houston Astros

C Robinson Chirinos
SP Justin Verlander
2B Jose Altuve
CF George Springer

Almost labeled as unfair, Justin Verlander and his Houston Astros continue to wreak havoc all across the AL West division, opening up what looks to be an insurmountable lead on their way to winning the division yet again.

Robinson Chirinos is the starting catcher for the Astros after Brian McCann left, having joined the team from the Texas Rangers, and while his production levels have not been great, his power numbers are good enough to justify him as the team’s starting backstop.

Similar to Sale, Verlander deserves no further explanation, and the fine wine of a pitcher continues to wow every year he puts on the spikes. For both Altuve and Springer, dealing with injuries have derailed a bit of their 2019 seasons, but they are now back to being healthy and look to be able to build upon their stats as the team looks to be able to coast into the playoffs yet again.

#1 Atlanta Braves

C Brian McCann
SP Mike Soroka
2B Ozzie Albies
CF Ronald Acuna Jr.

One of the most exciting and electrifying teams to watch this season, the Atlanta Braves look to have their long-term plan already in place, and it starts with the development and time they put into making sure their up-the-middle pieces were set and ready to go. While McCann is the veteran of this group, the former Brave who came back this season looks to be holding his own wait back there.

Mike Soroka is staking his claim to be the best starting pitcher on the Braves roster, which is hard to do considering this team also has Dallas Keuchel and Julio Tehran also making regular passes through the starting rotation. Soroka made his first career All-Star game appearance, and the rookie should garner some NL ROY votes, although Pete Alonso of the New York Mets looks to have that race all but wrapped up.

Both Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. have made All-Star appearances already in their brief careers, and the two charismatic youngsters have a ton of baseball ahead of them, specifically for the Braves after signing long-term deals this past winter. Locked up for the foreseeable future, both Albies and Acuna Jr. have a fantastic base of fans to play in front of in their new stadium, and the Braves up-the-middle quartet of players takes the cake as the best currently in the MLB.