While the defining image of the Yankees‘ season so far is overmatched 24-year-old lefty Chase Wright yielding four straight homers to the Red Sox back on April 22, the current reality is that it’s the offense, not the pitching, hamstringing the team’s attempts to make up ground on the Red Sox. Or the wild card. Or .500. The Yankees have scored just 125 runs in 26 May games, a bit under five runs a game, while allowing 114. Yes, the Yankees are 12-15 this month while outscoring their opponents, which is perhaps the biggest reason to remain optimistic about their chances.

The last two nights in Toronto were typical of the past few weeks. The Yankees tallied just four scores on 10 hits, picking up a mere four walks and three extra-base hits in the two games. This is supposed to be the best offense in baseball, and while it’s still not a bad one, the idea that the Yankees were going to be the best team in the AL was predicated on their scoring 900 or more runs. They’re not going to get there at this rate, which means the pitching will have to be that much better for the Yankees to continue their postseason streak.

The story of the last two nights, however, isn’t so much the Yankees’ bats as it is the Jays’ starters. In a season that will probably be lost to injuries and failing to meet the outsized expectations created by last year’s second-place finish, the Jays are making lemonade out of lemons, using the open spaces in the rotation to find out what they have in some starting pitchers who have lost their sheen as prospects over the past few years.

Monday evening, Dustin McGowan had his best outing of the season, striking out seven, walking one, and allowing a solo homer in 7 2/3 innings. It was his second straight quality start after three so-so wins since his insertion into the rotation four weeks ago.

McGowan was the Jays’ supplemental #1 pick out of high school in 2000, and made steady progress through the system until 2004, when a torn right ulnar collateral ligament stopped him cold. In 2005, he was working back nicely when the Jays yanked him out of Double-A-the highest level he’d ever pitched-to start on July 30 against the Rangers. Seven starts, seven homers, and an 8.13 ERA later, he was sent to the bullpen. The lowlight of this stretch came on August 21, when McGowan was left in to absorb a 12-run pounding by the Tigers.

It’s a waste of time to wonder how McGowan’s career might have progressed had the Blue Jays not be so cavalier about his handling that summer. Yanking him out of Double-A while he was rebounding from surgery, leaving him in to take brutal beatings, and burying him in the bullpen when those tactics somehow didn’t work would have to make any list of Stupid Player Development Tricks.

The Jays didn’t cover themselves in glory last year, either, bouncing McGowan between the bullpen and the rotation, although they tried him as a reliever at his request. Remember, this was a guy who had surgery in 2005 and was effective in 2006 until he was asked to do far too much by his employers. There was little reason to start messing with him, but they did. McGowan was fairly effective at Triple-A Syracuse-his first exposure to that level-but tanked again when promoted to Toronto. Going into last offseason, McGowan had lost his prospect status and was more of a project than anything else. Sent to the Arizona Fall League, he impressed some-myself included-with his power assortment, and I endorsed him for the Jays’ rotation ahead of everyone but Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett.

McGowan may finally have overcome the way he’s been handled the last two years, and started establishing himself as a starter in the majors. The Jays certainly have nothing to lose by leaving him in the rotation all year to learn what they have. McGowan isn’t a front-of-the-rotation guy; he is someone who’s better than veterans such as Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers, and clearly superior to Gustavo Chacin, who was essentially the Mike Dunne of 2005.

Marcum was the Jays’ #3 pick in 2003 out of Missouri State, where he was primarily a reliever. He followed up McGowan’s Monday night performance with six shutout innings last night. It was the second tme in four starts the Marcum had held the opposition without a run.

More of a command pitcher than McGowan, Marcum put up some ridiculous K/BB numbers coming through the Jays system-47/7 in the New York-Penn League, 72/4 in the Florida State League, 60/9 last year at Syracuse-but never impressed scouts due to his small frame and lack of a big fastball. Dropped into the Jays rotation last July, however, he was moderately effective in 14 starts, with a 4.72 ERA, 54 strikeouts and 28 walks, and a too-high 13 homers allowed. Marcum is going a better job of keeping the ball down this year (1.1 G/F, versus 0.8 last year) and his command has been more like it was in the minors, with 43 strikeouts and 15 walks in 41 1/3 innings. Since going into the rotation three weeks ago, he’s whiffed 21 and passed nine in 25 innings. Those numbers aren’t great, but any time you’re over 2:1 K/BB, you’re doing something right. Marcum is more a number four or five guy than a star, comparable to Paul Byrd. That’s a pitcher who can be a huge asset for a half-million bucks.

The work of McGowan and Marcum is important to the Blue Jays, because they’ve struggled to estabish the back of their rotation in recent years. With younger, inexpensive arms holding down those slots, the Jays can now focus their efforts on shoring up the left side of the field, the catcher’s spot, and the bullpen. McGowan and Marcum could be trade bait for that effort, or they could hold down rotation spots into 2008 while freeing up David Purcey, Jesse Litsch (sell high, boys), or Ricky Romero for use in deals. With the Jays’ pitching prospects at Triple-A having uniformly bad seasons to date, the work of McGowan and Marcum takes on even greater importance for a team that hasn’t developed many contributors over the past few years.

Maybe the 2007 Blue Jays won’t contend for a division title or even a playoff spot. With the contract commitments they have, they have to stay focused on the short term, try and be ready to bounce back with a good team in 2008, a year in which a number of Blue Jays’ contracts expire. McGowan and Marcum provided a glimpse of what ’08 could be like the last few nights at Rogers Centre.

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