The year is 2004. A career sub-.500 pitcher named Chris Carpenter, who missed the entire previous season because of shoulder surgery, makes his first few starts for the St. Louis Cardinals.
He finishes April with a 1-1 record and a 4.50 ERA. In most fantasy leagues, he's sitting on the waiver wire, waiting for the chance to show some team owner why he was a first-round pick for Toronto in 1993.
Flash forward a few years later, and Carpenter is a former Cy Young Award winner and arguably the best pitcher in the National League.
This story illustrates an important point: Elite pitchers don't always take a direct path to stardom. Some get there right away, and some take years to develop.
What they all have in common is great stuff.
Every fantasy team needs an ace pitcher. And if you drafted Carpenter, who is hurt, or Carlos Zambrano, who has been bad, you'll probably agree that two is better than one.
The good news is there are plenty available in most leagues, some who are on the brink of great things.
Take a chance on one of the following hurlers. Developing into another Carpenter is hardly a given, but each can help your team in some way:
Ted Lilly, LHP, Cubs
Five quality starts in five outings for Lilly, who is back in the National League for the first time since 1999, his rookie season in Montreal. He's not generally regarded as an elite pitcher, but perhaps he should be; sporting a killer curveball and an impressive fastball, Lilly has won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, and his strikeout rate has hovered between seven and eight during his career. He's walked five in his first five starts, with 33 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .176 against Lilly, who seems to be taking a step up.
John Maine, RHP, Mets
onents are hitting .169 against him, both among the top 10 in the majors.
Randy Wolf, LHP, Dodgers
Virtually ignored in fantasy drafts, smart owners are quickly snapping up Wolf, who appears to have regained his old form in his first season in Los Angeles. He fell out of favor with owners after several injury-plagued seasons, but before that, Wolf had four excellent seasons with Philadelphia from 2000-03. Particularly impressive are his 31 strikeouts compared to seven walks in 30 innings.
James Shields, RHP, Devil Rays
A nearly unknown source of cheap strikeouts, Shields has fanned 28 in 28 innings over his first four starts. Last year he struck out 104 in 124 2-3 innings. When he mixes in a changeup with his fastball, he's tough to hit and it's not a huge stretch to imagine Shields among the top 10 strikeout pitchers this year. His 4.50 ERA is right where you'd expect it to be, because he's prone to the longball (six HRs allowed so far). One discouraging sign: Shields is better with the bases clear (.165 OBA) than with runners on (.333 OBA). Last year, batters hit .310 against him with runners on base.
Chad Gaudin, RHP, Athletics
All the talk has been about converted relievers Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, but Gaudin has been every bit as good, and even more surprising. He did a fine job out of the bullpen last year, finishing with a 3.09 ERA in 55 appearances. Forced into a starting role because of injuries to Esteban Loaiza and Rich Harden, Gaudin has been better than anyone expected, striking out 20 in 24 1-3 innings and not allowing more than two runs in any of his four starts. In his last two outings, against the Angels and Rangers, he's allowed two runs and eight hits in 13 2-3 innings. He could lose his job when Loaiza comes back, but that may not be for a while. If he keeps this up, he won't be going anywhere.
Jason Hirsh, RHP, Rockies
The future ace acquired from the Astros in the Jason Jennings trade quietly has been very good in his first four starts in Colorado. Hirsh has three quality starts and hasn't allowed more than three runs in a game yet, and twice he's whiffed at least seven. There are bound to be growing pains and his 3.16 ERA is unlikely to last, but there are plenty of reasons to be excited about his quick progress.
B Alex Gordon can't afford to get behind in the count. Through Wednesday, when he takes a first-pitch strike, he's 1-for-29. How much longer will Kansas City let him struggle?

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