By Mike Christensen
Bruce Crabbe, new manager of the Mississippi Braves and a newcomer to the Atlanta organization, readily acknowledges that he’s still learning about the players coming to Pearl with him this season. Spring training was compressed, and many of the players on the current roster were scattered about in the Florida camp much of the time.
“They’re a lot more familiar with each other than I am of them,” said Crabbe, who spent the previous 17 seasons coaching and managing in the Boston Red Sox’s organization. “There will be a feeling-out period the first few weeks as I learn their roles and what they’re comfortable with.”
Crabbe already has recognized that Michael Harris II is a special talent. Harris, a center fielder and the M-Braves’ likely leadoff batter, is Atlanta’s top-rated prospect.
“Oh, he’s got it all,” said Crabbe, who had Harris for just a couple of days in camp. “Defensively, he reminds me of Jackie Bradley Jr., who I had time with while I was with the Red Sox. Offensively, from the left side, he’s the real deal. In my opinion, he’ll move quickly (in the system). He’ll get to the big leagues sooner rather than later.”
At High-Class A Rome last year, Harris batted .294 with seven home runs, 64 RBIs and 27 stolen bases. A lefty hitter and thrower, the 6-foot, 195-pound Harrris also won a minor league Gold Glove. Ranked No. 65 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 overall list of minor league prospects, Harris was in the big league camp for an extended period this spring.
He is one of 10 of the Braves’ Top 30 prospects slated to start the season in Pearl. The M-Braves open the Southern League slate on Friday (April 8) against Montgomery at Trustmark Park.
Atlanta’s farm system, typically one of the deepest in baseball, has been drained in recent years by graduations to the big league club and trades. MLB Pipeline puts the world champion Braves’ system at No. 27 in its most recent ranking.
Crabbe, for his part, said he saw plenty of outstanding talent this spring. “Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve seen some real players. They like to put tags on people in this game, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. With the right teaching and direction, any of these guys can succeed. I’ve seen that happen with a lot of players who weren’t projected to go far.”
Several weeks before Atlanta vanquished Houston in the World Series, the M-Braves won the Double-A South pennant. The club’s opening day roster includes 20 players who were in Pearl for at least part of 2021.
“There’s a good mix of veterans and newer guys on the roster,” Crabbe said. “You like to have that.”
Other highly rated prospects include right-hander Freddy Tarnok (No. 9), lefty Jared Shuster (No. 10), outfielder Jesse Franklin V (No. 11), righty Darius Vines (No. 14), righty Indigo Diaz (No. 15), righty William Woods (No. 21), righty Alan Rangel (No. 22), infielder Luke Waddell (No. 27) and outfielder Trey Harris (No. 30).
Trey Harris is among the players who were on the field when the M-Braves won the league title last September. First baseman/DH Drew Lugbauer and third baseman C.J. Alexander also return. All told, six other position players from last year’s club are back.
Trey Harris was Atlanta’s 2019 minor league player of the year. He hit .247 with eight homers and 50 RBIs for the M-Braves last season. Crabbe said he was impressed with the way Harris swings the bat and his versatility.
Lugbauer belted 18 homers and drove in 51 runs last season and played in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .346 with six bombs. Alexander hit 10 homers for the M-Braves.
More power may be supplied by Franklin, a former Michigan star who spent last season, his first in pro ball, at Rome and hit .244 with 24 homers, 61 RBIs and 19 steals.
“He made an impression this spring,” Crabbe said. “He’s got some pop and speed, a little like (Michael) Harris. Harris is more polished at this point. It’ll be Franklin’s first year in Double-A, so we’ll see what he looks like.”
Eleven pitchers return from the 2021 club, including last year’s opening day starter, Hayden Deal, and Rangel, who threw six innings in the title game, allowing just one run and punching out eight.
Crabbe said pitching coach Bo Henning knows many of the pitchers quite well, having coached at Rome last year.
Tarnok, the highest-rated pitching prospect on the roster at No. 9, was promoted from Rome to Mississippi in July and posted a 3-2 record with a 2.60 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 45 innings. No. 10 prospect Shuster, a first-round pick in 2020, was 2-0, 3.70 ERA with 73 K’s in 58 1/3 innings at Rome. He made three appearances for the M-Braves in September and put up a 7.36 ERA.
The M-Braves start the ’22 season with a three-game homestand against Montgomery, followed by a six-game series at Biloxi. The 138-game season runs through Sept. 18.