For a 22-year-old minor league pitcher with aspirations of one day playing in the Majors, Canada is not the ideal location to begin a baseball career. But that was reality for Virginia native Ian Thomas just five years ago, as he found himself in Winnipeg, Manitoba playing for the Goldeyes of the independent Northern League. Though he performed very well during his time north of the border, there was limited scouting exposure and very little press. The reliever was stuck in somewhat of a baseball limbo. Now fast forward several years to 2014, and travel over 1,500 miles southeast of Winnipeg, where the newest member of the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen, that very same Ian Thomas can be found proving that it is never too late to push for your dreams.
Going undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University back in 2009 ensured that the pitcher’s path to the MLB would be difficult. Beginning his minor league career playing for an unaffiliated team in Winnipeg only further complicated matters. Between the excruciating 17 hour bus rides for a single road series, and being over 1,700 miles away from home in Virginia, it is a wonder that the 6’4 southpaw never considered Winnipeg to be the end of the road. Instead he remained determined, regardless of where he found himself geographically. He continued to train hard and never gave up hope that one day his talent would get recognized by the right people.
Thomas steadily improved in the better part of three seasons pitching for the Goldeyes. In his second season he posted a stunning 1.64 ERA en route to being named rookie pitcher of the year. He was eligible for the award due to pitching only 16 innings for Winnipeg the previous year. In his third and final season with Winnipeg, Thomas posted his highest strikeout total at 72 in just over 57 innings of work, and even though the Goldeyes had ditched the crumbling Northern League for the budding American Association, the reliever decided to head south in the hopes of catching on with a team in an affiliated league.
Sure enough, after pitching in only seven games for the York Revolution of the independent Atlantic League, Thomas caught the attention of the Atlanta Braves organization. Upon being signed he was sent to Braves’ Class-A affiliate in Rome, Georgia where he posted impressive numbers, but it was during the following season while playing for Double-A Mississippi that Thomas really took off. In the 2013 season he appeared in a total of 39 games while starting 13 of them, posted an ERA of 2.76, and had 123 strikeouts against just 37 walks in 104-1/3 innings. It was that performance that got the Virginia-born pitcher a non-roster invitation to the big club’s spring training camp in 2014, and gave him the opportunity to prove that it is never too late to reach your dreams.
With a rash of injuries befalling both the Braves’ starting rotation and bullpen in pre-season action, the chance to make the squad became wide open. Thomas took full advantage of the glaring opportunity going 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA and 13 strikeouts in only 11 innings of action. His stellar spring performance combined with Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez’ desire for another lefty in the bullpen paved the way for the one-time Winnipeg Goldeye to make the Braves 25-man roster.
Since the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season kicked off a week ago, Thomas has already been called upon twice. His most recent appearance being a two strikeout eighth inning performance in a 6-2 win over the division rival Washington Nationals on Saturday. Not bad for an undrafted kid out of Norfolk, Virginia who took a long, winding road through Canada to finally get to the majors. And with a little help from the Braves organization, Ian Thomas is now proving that it is never too late, and you are never too far away to reach your dreams.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky
Winnipeg Free Press