Reliever Thomas traveled unique path to Braves’ opening-day roster

MILWAUKEE – When it became apparent late in Braves spring training that Ian Thomas had pitched well enough to earn a spot on the opening-day roster, manager Fredi Gonzalez was asked about the lanky reliever, who'll be 27 in April yet has never pitched above Double-A.

“He’s left-handed. Had some quality outings. I’m waiting for the feds to come in and say ‘Hey, this guy is in the witness relocation program, we need to get him back,’” Gonzalez said, referring to Thomas from-out-of-nowehere background. “I’m just dumbfounded, because he’s got weapons.”

Thomas wasn’t in the witness-protection program but might as well have been. He spent a few years plying his trade in Canada for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, an unaffiliated team in the independent Northern League when he pitched for them in 2009-2010, and part of the breakaway American Association – another independent league — in 2011.

Minor league affiliates of major league teams can have it rough sometimes with bus rides of several hours or longer. But that’s the lap of luxury compared to the 17-hour bus trip – yes, 17 hours one way – that Thomas’ Winnipeg team, the only Canadian team in its league, would make for a series in Indiana against the Gary SouthShort RailCats.

“Ruthless,” is how Thomas described it. “We would play a couple of series, go out to Gary and then come back and play in St. Paul on the way back.”

Thomas went undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University, and a couple of months later got a call from a Winnipeg team official. In his second season in Canada he carved a 1.64 ERA in 34 appearances, with 60 strikeouts (20 walks) in 55 innings.

He spent one more season there before figuring he needed to get back to the United States if he was to have much chance of catching a scout’s eye and getting a shot at an affiliated league. He pitched in seven games for York in the independent Atlantic League in 2012 before signing a minor league deal with the Braves in late May. He was sent to low Class-A Rome at age 25, several years or more older than most players in that league.

After posting a 3.15 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 45-2/3 innings at Rome, Thomas was moved last season to Double-A Mississippi, where he really opened eyes. Relying on a fastball that’s improved significantly as he’s gotten older, and a sharp curveball he honed since signing with the Braves, Thomas posted a 2.76 ERA in 39 games at Mississippi including 13 starts, and piled up 123 strikeouts with 37 walks in 104-1/3 innings.

He got a non-roster invitation to spring training and outpitched a couple of other lefty candidates, allowing three runs, seven hits and five walks with 13 strikeouts in 10-1/3 innings. He was named to the 25-man roster Saturday. Dream come true.

“Adversity, being at the bottom, working my way up to the top,” he said. “It’s a different path, you know? I got to skip a couple of levels in affiliated (leagues). But at the end of the day, I’m just happy to be here.”

Braves' payroll up: The Braves' opening day payroll will be just over $110 million, up about $20 million from 2013 but less than half of Dodgers' major league-high $235 million payroll. The Braves will be right in the middle of the pack, probably 14th or 15th out of 30 teams. They went about $10 million over their planned budget by signing free agent Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract March 12 after season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.

All-MLB team: Three Braves — shortstop Andrelton Simmons, right fielder Jason Heyward and closer Craig Kimbrel — made the Joe Sheehan's Sports 12-man All-Major League Baseball preseason team. No other team had more than one player on the squad.