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The Red Sox are loaded up the middle

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Does Boston have the best collection of up-the-middle talent in baseball?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubt the Red Sox are in a good position looking ahead to 2017. The team is coming off a year in which they won the American League East and looked like a legitimately great team for much of the year. They’ve added more talent this year, and they are the presumed favorites for their division yet again. In fact, they may even be the favorites in the entire American League. I’d probably still lean towards Cleveland for that distinction, but it’s close and a reasonable argument exists for both sides. There are plenty of reasons for them being in this spot. Much of the roster is built around youth, meaning we can expect fewer of their players to get worse this year. Obviously, the addition of Chris Sale gives them another elite talent.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this roster, though, is the talent up the middle of the diamond. Building a well-balanced roster is clearly important, and every contending team has one. In an ideal world, however, the premiere talent plays the most important positions. It’s not entirely true for the Red Sox — Mookie Betts is their best player and he’s in a corner — but they are well-suited here. In fact, they might have the best group of up-the-middle-talent in all of baseball.

It starts in the outfield, where the Red Sox boast Jackie Bradley in center field. Offensively, there are still some question marks about who exactly he is, but he’s still taken a giant step over where he was at this time last year. There are going to be hot streaks and cold streaks, but we’ve seen enough talent here to believe he is at least an average hitter on the whole. That could be a conservative approximation, though. When you combine that with the defense he provides — among the best in the league -- you have a great baseline with your up-the-middle talent.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Moving to the infield, the Red Sox have a dynamic double play combination that not only blends different talents but also different places on the age curve. Dustin Pedroia is the new veteran face of the franchise now that David Ortiz is gone, and his play last season suggests he still has some prime left. Not only was Pedroia able to stay healthy all year, but he also made better and more consistent contact. While his power may dip a bit next year (no one really knows what to expect with respect to last year’s league-wide power surge) there’s little reason to foresee something other than above-average season at the plate. Then, like Bradley, there is the fact that he was one of the best defensive second basemen in all of baseball.

On the other side of the bag is the youth of the double play combination, Xander Bogaerts. The young shortstop emerged as one of the best at his position two years ago, but with a performance that seemed unsustainable. Last year, he quelled those fears, improving his plate discipline and power to counteract his regressing batting average on balls in play. Now, here comes the scary part for opponents: Bogaerts will be just 24 during this season and can still improve. He’s a competent defensive shortstop who’s also one of the better ones at the plate, and still has tons of potential to realize.

Finally, there is catcher, which is the weak spot for this up-the-middle crew. Right now, Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are all figuring to compete for playing time. The first two would be my bet to make the Opening Day roster. The bad news is neither of them figure to make an impact with their bats. Leon is heading for some heavy regression after his absurd run last year. Vazquez, well I talked about Vazquez’s bat a few weeks ago. The good news is both of them are above-average catchers, with Vazquez being fair to call elite. Swihart is more of a wildcard, who hasn’t shown much offensive promise in short MLB stints, but has the potential for much more.

So, that’s a good group. Three-fourths of the up-the-middle can produce both at the plate and with the glove, and the weak spot should at least be productive preventing runs. Of course, they’re not the only good collection of players in the league.

The Dodgers have Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal. Their second base position is in flux, but they’ve been heavily connected to Brian Dozier. Such a move would likely put them ahead of the Red Sox, depending partially on how much you buy Dozier’s power and the impact of Grandal’s framing skills.

The defending champion Cubs (that’s the first time I’ve ever typed that and it was weird as hell) have youthful talent at Addison Russell and Willson Contreras at shortstop and catcher. They also have the veteran presence of Ben Zobrist at second, with Javier Baez mixing in as well. Center field could be something of a weakness, although Jason Heyward or Albert Almora could change that. Still, I’m not sure I’d take that group over Boston’s.

In the American League, Houston might have the best group. Carlos Correa was somewhat disappointing for much of last season, but he might still be the best shortstop in baseball for a long time. Jose Altuve might already be the best second baseman. In the outfield, George Springer is shifting to center field, and while he’s had some contact issues in the past, he started trending in the right direction last year. Finally, they added Brian McCann to play behind the plate. This is a stacked group that may not be better than the Red Sox defensively, but probably more than makes up for it with their offensive talent.

The best way to build a team is to start in the middle and build out. The Red Sox have talent all of the diamond, but they are strongest on this important section of the roster. With Bradley, Bogaerts, Pedroia and their trio of catchers, they are among the best up-the-middle foursomes in baseball. I’d probably take Houston and Los Angeles over them, but they are right there. It’s just another reason we’ll be seeing the Red Sox as a popular World Series pick in the coming months.