The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

CF Carlos Gomez, C Jonathan Lucroy strengthen Brewers up middle in NL Central race

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MILWAUKEE - Carlos Gomez left Minnesota as trade bait. He returns this week a budding star in center for the Brewers.

The energetic Gomez is part of an emerging core up the middle that has helped Milwaukee spend most of the first two months of the season in first place in the National League Central. The Gold Glove winner and catcher Jonathan Lucroy have turned into two of the best at their positions, while the speedy Jean Segura is a top young player at shortstop.

While being strong up the middle may not necessarily a predictor of success, it certainly can't hurt either, especially when teams ponder the future around draft time.

"Historically everybody talks about drafting strong throughout the middle because you can take guys who can play shortstop and second basemen and they can eventually play other positions," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said during a visit to Milwaukee. "You're talking about very athletic guys, guys with explosiveness, guys that have some agility and things of that nature."

In Milwaukee, Segura _ acquired in the Zach Grienke deal with the Angels two years ago _ has rebounded from a sluggish start to hit well since taking over at leadoff a couple weeks ago. The Brewers have a solid platoon at second with the left-handed Scooter Gennett and right-handed veteran Rickie Weeks.

Mix in the team's improved pitching from a year ago, and it's no wonder that the Brewers had the second-best record in the National League at 35-24 through Tuesday, even with injuries sidelining right fielder Ryan Braun and third baseman Aramis Ramirez at times.

Gomez may be the Brewers' early MVP. He's on pace for a 30-30 year with a .310 average and 11 homers, 32 RBIs and 11 steals through Tuesday.

Gomez spent two seasons in Minnesota before being traded to the Brewers after the 2009 season for shortstop J.J. Hardy. He spent a couple years as a backup before blossoming the last few seasons under manager Ron Roenicke.

"Maybe if (Minnesota) gave me time to play, it might be the same. Who knows, maybe better," Gomez said. "The only thing I think that I (needed was) growing and opportunity."

Gomez liked his time with the Twins. He wouldn't mind making one more trip to Minneapolis in July for the All-Star Game at Target Field.

"It would mean a lot ... if I make it," Gomez said.

Roenicke has said Gomez is just playing to his strengths as an aggressive hitter with speed; with Gomez's production, the team can live with the strikeouts that can come with his often violent, corkscrew-like swings.

While Braun remains a face of the franchise, Gomez has turned into a team leader with his infectious personality. Lucroy is also becoming more vocal and assuming more of a leadership role.

They stack up among other notable up-the-middle lineups like center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and Hardy in Baltimore _ all Glove Glove winners; and center fielder Matt Kemp, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and second baseman Dee Gordon with the Dodgers.

"You always want your better players to be your leaders," Roenicke said. "It makes a difference."

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