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#pounditSunday, January 23, 2022

Eight players who will shape the MLB playoff race

5) Jon Lester, Cubs

This is not the Lester the Cubs hoped and expected to see, especially in a year after he was such a vital cog in their World Series-winning team. Lester’s ERA sits at 4.37 — admittedly inflated after a disastrous outing against the Cincinnati Reds in which he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings and ended up on the disabled list. Still, his ERA is a worrying sign for a team that is in a closer-than-expected dogfight for the NL Central.

There is no denying that the Cubs have talent. The rest of the rotation has begun to solidify in recent weeks, but the Cubs would be so much better with an effective Lester. If he can recapture the form that has made him an ace for much of his career, Chicago could separate themselves in the division rather quickly.

6) Rafael Devers, Red Sox

Third base had been a black hole for the Red Sox all season long. The fix, it turned out, was quite simple — call up 20-year-old uberprospect Rafael Devers and let the magic happen.

Devers announced himself with a dramatic ninth inning home run off Aroldis Chapman at Yankee Stadium and hasn’t stopped hitting since. To be clear, his pace is almost certainly unsustainable — a .302 average and eight home runs in just 22 games is absurd — but Devers has provided the Red Sox with a valuable jolt at a position where they badly needed it. He’s a big part of why they’ve suddenly gone up by 4.5 games in the AL East. If he can keep anything close to this up, they should win the division.

7) Chase Anderson, Brewers

The Brewers badly missed Anderson, who missed about seven weeks with an oblique injury during a key part of Milwaukee’s season. He returned on Aug. 20, and the Brewers are desperately hoping he can pick up right where he left off, as they’re still very much in the picture in the National League Central.

Anderson dropped his ERA to 2.83 in his first start back, giving Milwaukee five strong innings. The team does have some questions in their rotation, so if he can come back and offer the Brewers a strong start every fifth day, he’ll do a lot to stabilize things and give them a real shot at the division.

8) Paul DeJong, Cardinals

Like Devers did for the Red Sox, DeJong has provided a surprising shot in the arm for the Cardinals, who are contending in the National League Central. The 24-year-old infielder made his Major League debut on May 28 and has been a huge bonus for St. Louis ever since then, hitting .301 with 20 home runs.

DeJong has been remarkably consistent and has filled St. Louis’s shortstop job admirably. Their rise back into contention and his solidifying a spot in the lineup are not coincidental. The Cardinals sit 4.5 games out of first place. If DeJong keeps hitting, the Cardinals have a real chance to leapfrog Milwaukee and Chicago and make a run at the division.

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