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We have seen a shift in recent years with dwindling offensive output giving way to more dominant pitching. At one point or another, each of the last two years has been dubbed the “Year of the Pitcher,” and 2012 is on the same path (though Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton may have something to say about that).  This can be seen as a boon to fantasy owners, as Value Picks remain plentiful.  Heck, just a cursory look at the top 10 starters in fantasy this season shows a handful of VP-types like Lance Lynn, Jake Peavy, and Jason Hammel.  In short, there will always be some arms out there being undervalued or on the cusp of breaking out.  Let’s take a look at this week’s list.

Last Chance: Time to get on board with these arms before they are snapped up in your league.  These entries are becoming less available with each passing start and find themselves on rosters in 30-plus percent of the leagues at two of the three outlets and over 50 percent at one of them. We won’t necessarily have options in this field each week.

A sharp debut from Chicago’s Jeff Samardzija (Yahoo! 47%, ESPN 40%, CBS 82%) earned him some early season love, but then a pair of five-ER outings curbed the enthusiasm.  St. Louis inflicted the damage in that first five-run outing, but The Shark bounced back the second time around on April 24 by throwing 6 2/3 innings of shut-out ball with nine strikeouts.  He has already had a pair of nearly identical starts in May, going seven innings or more with just one earned allowed, seven strikeouts, and two walks in each. 

He is now 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 9.1 K/9 (striking out a quarter of the batters he has faced), yet he is still underowned at two of the major outlets.  The incredible improvements in his control (2.8 BB/9) along with the rise in groundball rate to a career-best 50 percent suggest that this is very real. 

In the American League, Bartolo Colon (Yahoo! 56%, ESPN 68%, CBS 77%) is getting more love than Samardzija. Though this shouldn’t be the case, Colon is still available in more leagues than he should be at this point.  He doesn’t have the gaudy strikeout totals of Samardzija, but playing in Oakland favors more of a pitch-to-contact approach.  His 5.3 K/9 rate is down from last year, but his walk rate is also down to a career-best 1.5 BB/9.  Colon might not last the entire season at 39 years old, so get in now and enjoy his success while you can. 

Widely Available: These arms are sparsely-rostered at most outlets despite possessing the talent and statistics worthy of a spot.  Because of the league type each outlet predominantly caters to, you will often see these guys more available at ESPN and Yahoo! than CBS, but roughly 35-45 percent availability at CBS qualifies as widely available.  We should have three-to-six arms in this category in a given week.

Act now and you can get in on the ground floor with Felipe Paulino (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 0%, CBS 15%), who made his season debut last week and looked fantastic against the Yankees with six shutout innings, six strikeouts, and just six baserunners allowed (two via walks).  Paulino performed well in his American League debut last year, posting an 8.5 K/9 and 2.5 K/BB in 125 innings with the Royals after being acquired from the Rockies.  His 4.11 ERA wasn’t bad, but his 3.74 xFIP suggested we could see even more going forward from this hard-throwing 28-year old.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (Yahoo! 30%, ESPN 21%, CBS 60%) just keeps getting it done, and so far this year he has addressed his biggest flaw from 2010-2011 by boosting his strikeout rate from 5.6 per nine to 7.5 per nine over 38 innings this year.  As a knuckleballer, he is prone to his bad days (like the eight earned runs he allowed in Atlanta on April 18), but since 2010, he has enjoyed a lot more good than bad. 

I’ll freely admit that the volatility associated with Carlos Zambrano (Yahoo! 34%, ESPN 15%, CBS 65%) scares me, but if you’re looking for pitching help and can stomach it, then Z is a hot hand.  Just realize that his competition has played a large role in his early season success.  I’ll grant that the Astros are playing better than expected this year, but no one is mistaking them for a top-tier team, and he has 15 innings logged against them this year, including his shutout on Monday.  What’s worse, apart from the Astros (12th), none of his other opponents are in the top half of the league in OPS.

At first blush, this next VP would appear as an AL-only play, but Alexi Ogando (Yahoo! 53%, ESPN 11%, CBS 31%) is probably already owned in most AL-only leagues as an elite reliever who could end up with a bigger role at some point during the season.  I would recommend him for mixed leagues too, though, as an ERA/WHIP stabilizer capable of more than a strikeout per inning with win potential, thanks to his usage in high leverage situations that could leave him the pitcher of record by game’s end. 

As an added bonus in leagues that differentiate between SP and RP slots, Ogando still qualifies as a starter since he spent 2011 in the Texas rotation.  I could easily see him slotting right back into that rotation as either a spot starter or an injury replacement, just as it’s feasible he could become the closer if Joe Nathan were to fail or fall to injury himself.  Most 10-team leagues will have many options more worthy of your time in the starting pitcher arena, but 12-plus team leagues should be able to find a use for Ogando’s services.  He is a great upside play with a downside of simply dominating out of the bullpen for the rest of the year. 

AL-only VP
Jerome Williams (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 12%, CBS 21%)
came out of nowhere last year and put together 44 mildly useful innings for the Angels after not pitching in the big leagues since 2007.  He earned a spot again in 2012 and has been quite good, posting a 3.38 ERA and 1.16 WHIP that are supported by a 6.5 K/9 and 2.6 K/BB in 32 innings.  Those levels likely represent his peak at 30 years old, so he is going to be best deployed as a matchup play, but you could definitely do worse. 

NL-only VP
Marco Estrada (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 0%, CBS 9%)
has no business toting around a 4.50 ERA with the way he has pitched, but home runs have bitten him hard in his small 24 inning sample (18 of which have come as a starter).  In three starts, during which he has averaged six innings, he has 16 strikeouts and just two walks, but five home runs have led to his 10 earned runs and 5.00 ERA.  Focus on the skills and understand that his 18 percent home run-to-flyball ratio will normalize over time and bring the ERA down with it.

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moonkyu
5/10
What about James McDonald? Over the ownership threshold? Liked him for a few years, but feel that he might be breaking out. Better bet than the Shark?
sporer24
5/10
He's a longtime favorite of mine... I jumped on board with him last week - http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=16789 I think he and Shark are pretty close, but I'd lean Mc.
FelizEsBueno
5/10
Paul: Would you rather have Niese or Dickey for the rest of the year (non-keeper)?