It’s interesting what a pennant race can come down to.

As of this morning, there are 12 MLB teams that can be considered to still be battling for a playoff spot. Four teams (the Red Sox, Indians, Angels and Mets) have essentially locked up their slots, and 14 others (the Blue Jays, a game above .500 after last night’s disaster, top the list) are playing out the string. All 12 of those contenders take the field tonight, with one of them, the Tigers, playing two games.

The 13 pitchers who will take the mound to start today’s games, each holding his team’s playoff hopes in his hands, are about as unimpressive a collection as you could assemble. I’m not a fan of the “expansion has diluted the talent level” argument-but tonight’s roster of starting pitchers for teams playing meaningful games is a fair data point in that case:

  • Chad Durbin, Tigers. The more accomplished of two Tigers’ starters today, Durbin has a career ERA of 5.72 in 112 appearances and 461 1/3 innings. He lost his spot in the rotation in June, and has been pitching mostly low-leverage relief since then. In his favor: five shutout innings last Thursday against the White Sox.

  • Jair Jurrjens, Tigers. He’ll be making his fourth career start in the second game of the doubleheader. In his first three he walked six and struck out six in 15 innings, allowing three home runs. Jurrjens is just 21, has never pitched at Triple-A, and he didn’t exactly dominate the Eastern League before his call-up last month.

  • Franklin Morales, Rockies. He’s making his fifth major-league start, and is in the majors largely because the Rockies lost two of their top four starters in August. In his first four starts he averaged 4 1/3 innings, walked eight and struck out seven. He has slightly more Triple-A experience than Jurrjens, three starts in which he walked 13 and struck out 16.

  • Adam Eaton, Phillies. Eaton, in the first year of a three-year contract, has a 6.28 ERA and 26 home runs allowed in 144 2/3 innings. He’s made just four starts since the end of July: 19 innings, 19 runs allowed, seven homers.

  • Yovani Gallardo, Brewers. In this crowd, Gallardo is peak Pedro Martinez. He’s young (21) and not very experienced (just 26 starts above Double-A), but he’s an excellent pitcher, with 75 strikeouts, 28 walks and seven home runs allowed in 84 1/3 MLB innings. Gallardo, despite his inexperiences, is the best pitcher starting for any contender this evening. (Ed. Note: Well, he would be if Jake Peavy didn’t exist. E-Sheehan.–JSS.)

  • Philip Hughes, Yankees. Hughes obilterated every level of the minor leagues, reaching the majors with a 2.09 career ERA in the bushes and a nearly 5-1 K/BB. Nevertheless, he’s just 21, and his lack of experience has shown in the majors: 5.33 ERA in nine starts. His peripherals are better than that-2-1 K/BB, 46 strikeouts in 49 innings, just seven home runs allowed. Like Gallardo, Hughes is a good pitcher, just one who may have been rushed a little because his team needs the pitching help.

  • Mark Mulder, Cardinals. Because he’s a lefty who’s had some success in the major leagues and who is considered a smart pitcher and person, I’m reluctant to say that Mulder is completely done. If he gets himself healthy, he could well go on to have the back end of Frank Tanana‘s career. Right now, though, he has nothing. He was awful last year, and he didn’t look ready to pitch against the Pirates last week. At this point, the Cards could run Ricky Horton out there and I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • Buddy Carlyle, Braves. Carlyle, who’s been bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors for a while, has a 5.29 ERA and no quality starts since July 21. Carlyle has allowed nine homers in his last 31 innings, and he doesn’t have the kind of command that lets him get away with that.
  • Jason Marquis, Cubs. He’s had the “dead cat bounce” season I expected from him, and a good BABIP year–.251, third among ERA-title qualifiers-has kept his ERA down at 4.13. His peripherals don’t remotely support that, with just 5.1 K/9, a 1.4 K/BB and 22 homers allowed in 172 innings. Marquis is a #4 starter who provides innings, which is what the Cubs signed him to be.

  • Jarrod Washburn, Mariners. The lefty version of Marquis, Washburn benefits from a home park that just murderizes fly balls. He’s very tough on the running game, and like Marquis, he takes the ball when it’s his turn. These things have more value over the long term, a full season, than they necessarily do when you’re trying to win one game. On the other hand, having pitchers like Marquis and Washburn keeps you from rushing 21-year-old prospects with no experience past Double-A.

  • Jake Peavy, Padres. He got crushed his last time out, pitching on short rest against the Diamondbacks: four innings, eight runs. Other than that, I got nothin’. Jake Peavy is a guy any team would want to have on the mound at any time, and especially if the game was a critical one.

  • Esteban Loaiza, Dodgers. Loaiza is making his second start for the Dodgers and his fourth of 2007, having lost most of the season to neck, shoulder and knee problems. He’s a small notch above Marquis and Washburn in quality, with the hook here being that the Dodgers are starting a guy they claimed on waivers two weeks ago.

  • Edgar Gonzalez, Diamondbacks. Homer-prone righty who gets the start because Yusmeiro Petit couldn’t hold the job. Gonzalez has an ERA of 5.00 this year and 6.04 for his career, and he’s spent most of 2007 throwing low-leverage relief as part of Bob Melvin‘s heavily-partitioned bullpen.

I don’t know that this list of pitchers proves anything. To me, it’s interesting that a group of contending teams can’t find better options, or at least show a willingness to pull back to a five-man rotation, rather than damaging themselves with the likes of Eaton, Mulder and Gonzalez, or rushing prospects like Jurrjens and Morales. There have to be better ways to run a baseball team that’s trying to reach the playoffs.