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.
Pieced-together Braves rotation shaping up
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There likely will not be any surprises on Saturday, when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez announces the four-man rotation he plans to employ through a majority of the first two weeks of the regular season.
Julio Teheran is set to earn his first career Opening Day start, and Alex Wood will likely start the second game of the season. Freddy Garcia has not pitched effectively during his past two Grapefruit League starts and he is guaranteed to make $1.5 million if he is placed on Atlanta's roster.
"I'm excited," Teheran said after tossing six strong innings against the Tigers on Friday. "I'm just waiting for them to notify us. After the first game, I think it's going to be the same. We're going to have five starters. It doesn't matter if you're the first or the last."
But this might be the price the Braves have to pay to fill their injury-depleted starting rotation until Ervin Santana and Mike Minor are ready to make their regular-season debuts. Santana is aiming to join Atlanta's rotation by the end of the second week of the season. Minor might have to wait at least one additional week.
David Hale still stands as the favorite to gain the last spot in this four-man rotation. But Gus Schlosser continued to keep the competition interesting as he allowed one run and surrendered a hit while working four innings for the split-squad Braves team that played the Orioles on Friday afternoon.
Schlosser has allowed just two earned runs in 9 1/3 innings during the Grapefruit League season. Hale has been charged with seven earned runs and 14 hits in 12 1/3 innings.
While Schlosser has been more impressive, his bid could be hampered by the fact that Hale is already on the 40-man roster.
J-Up finding swing deep in spring campaign
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Justin Upton has been around long enough to not be bothered by what transpires during the early weeks of Spring Training, but he also understands the potential benefit of exiting the Grapefruit League season with some momentum.
"It's always good to have good at-bats," Upton said. "When you start squaring balls up consistently for a few days, you know that you're starting to find a little bit of rhythm. You just try to maintain that as long as possible. Hopefully, you start getting hot now and you roll it into the season."
Upton began his Grapefruit campaign with just four hits in his first 28 at-bats. But despite going hitless in Friday's 3-0 loss to the Tigers, he has recorded four hits, including two doubles and a number of loud outs over the course of his past 14 at-bats.
Mets center fielder Juan Lagares robbed Upton of a home run during the first inning of Thursday's game in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and caught another of the Braves outfielder's long drives along the warning track in the third inning.
Upton then found a couple of holes as he singled and doubled in his final two at-bats on Thursday.
"Those at-bats were about as good as I've seen him take," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "If he stays right there in the middle of the field like that, he's going to be a tough out. His at-bats are getting better and better. That's a good sign to see at this point in Spring Training."
• Evan Gattis has not appeared in a game since he experienced some soreness around his right quadriceps muscle while scoring from first base on a Dan Uggla triple in Monday's win over the Astros. But Gattis said the ailment is not something that would force him to miss any time if the regular season had already started.
• Braves general manager Frank Wren's son, Kyle, experienced a thrill when he was one of the Minor Leaguers who served as an extra in Friday's split-squad loss to the Tigers. Kyle Wren, who was selected in the eighth round of last year's First-Year Player Draft, struck out in his first at-bat and grounded out to shortstop in the ninth inning.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.