LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Ian Thomas went undrafted after finishing his career at Virginia Commonwealth University, he spent the next seasons playing for independent league teams located in Canada and then decided he needed to head back to the United States to improve his odds of hooking on with an affiliated Minor League club.
Thomas' decision to join the Atlantic League's York Revolution before the start of the 2012 season paid dividends. Making one of his seven appearances for York, Thomas began developing a sharper curveball that resulted in an impressive strikeout ratio that led the Braves to sign him to a Minor League contract.
Like with Brandon Beachy, who went from being an undrafted collegiate player to the Major League ERA leader before his elbow blew out during the 2012 season, the Braves might have found a gem in Thomas, ranked 12th in the organization by MLB.com and a non-roster invitee who enters the final week of Spring Training with a chance to begin the season in Atlanta's bullpen.
"It is very exciting," Thomas said. "It has been a different route. But every guy takes a different route. It's just about how he deals with failure and building off of that. I was at the lowest of the low, going to independent ball and seeing guys come from even the Major Leagues. They would come to play and be a little bit bitter because they know what it's like up here. I didn't know what it's like up here. I was just trying to get here."
Thomas enhanced his bid to reach the Majors as he completed a scoreless seventh inning while facing Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter during Friday's 3-0 loss to the Tigers. The 26-year-old southpaw has allowed three earned runs, surrendered six hits and issued four walks in seven innings this spring.
"He's left-handed and has a quality arm," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I'm waiting for the feds to come in and say this guy has been on the witness relocation program or something and we need to get him back. I'm just dumbfounded because he has weapons."
Whether the Braves go with seven or eight relievers while using a four-man rotation during a majority of the regular season's first two weeks, Thomas has at least joined Ryan Buchter and Atahualpa Severino as the most attractive internal left-handed candidates to fill one of the two or three available bullpen spots.
Because he is out of options and spent all of last year with the Atlanta club, it has been assumed right-hander Anthony Varvaro will claim one of those spots. But Varvaro's recent woes extended against the Orioles on Friday as he allowed five earned runs on four hits and two walks in one-plus innings for the split-squad Braves. He worked a scoreless seventh and then allowed all the runs without recording an out in the eighth.
"With Anthony, we know what he has done in the past," Gonzalez said. "History is going to help him."
Along with continuing to evaluate all of their internal options, the Braves are expected to spend the next week searching for relievers that could be available via trade or the waiver wire.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less