Michael Harris II, a top Braves prospect, is facing crucial season for his development

NORTH PORT, Fla. — Two years ago, when the coronavirus shut down the minor leagues, Braves minor leaguer Braden Shewmake and his peers received even more proof that Michael Harris II could be special when the outfielder took his final round of batting practice at the club’s alternate site on that day.

Harris hopped into the batter’s box and launched a home run from the right side, then flipped over to the left and sent another over the wall. Shewmake and the others looked on in awe as Harris, who is no longer a switch-hitter, made this feat seem effortless.

“He's a gamer. He's an absolute gamer. Lights turn on and he gets better – which is hard to do. You watch him out here and you're like, ‘Man, that guy's really good.' Then he gets in a game and is even better."

- Braves minor leaguer Braden Shewmake, on top prospect Michael Harris II

“What in the world?” they said among themselves. “This is absolutely insane.”

The Braves players at the alternate site had seen Harris play. They knew he possessed all five tools. But once again, Harris had provided yet another reminder of his potential.

Along with catcher Shea Langeliers, Harris headlines the group of Braves minor leaguers that opened camp on Sunday at CoolToday Park. With baseball’s lockout still in place, players on the 40-man roster aren’t allowed to participate in camp.

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Harris, the organization’s No. 4 prospect on MLB Pipeline, is entering a crucial season for his development. As is the case with every prospect, Harris, the club’s third-round pick in 2019, must answer long-term questions.

Can he eventually crack Atlanta’s outfield? Will he hit for more power this season? Will he live up to the hype when all is said and done?

Something is undeniable to those who have watched him: his talent.

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“He’s an absolute freak,” Shewmake said.

Asked what stands out most about Harris, Langeliers said: “Everything. That kid, he’s unreal. He’s an unreal athlete, unreal baseball player. Really humble kid, really good kid. Just awesome to be around.”

In 2021, Harris starred at High-A Rome as he hit .294 with a .798 on-base plus slugging percentage. He homered only seven times, but he drove in 64 runs. He finished with an impressive .349 weighted on-base average — which weighs each outcome of hitting based on how valuable it is — that speaks to his offensive production. He even stole 27 bases in 31 attempts.

ExplorePhotos: Braves minor leaguers report to camp

Not only is Harris one of the team’s top prospects, someone who will be a part of its future if all goes well, but he went to Stockbridge High. He grew up a Braves fan. His family and friends are excited because, if and when he makes it to the big leagues, he’ll be a short drive away.

This could be a lot on his shoulders, but Harris insists it doesn’t add any pressure.

“I just be who I am,” he said. “I don’t think about that too much. I just go out and do what I can do and have fun.”

Harris soon said that final part is his main goal – have fun. (In his spare time this offseason, Harris took up golf, which seems to suit his laid-back personality). He said the lockout, which has prevented big leaguers from being here, doesn’t take away from anything.

As he begins an important season, Harris said he’s evaluating every part of his game. “There’s always somewhere to improve, so I don’t really focus on one specific area,” he added. An example of this: Last season, his plate discipline improved as he became more stingy around the strike zone.

In the season’s first 66 games, Harris drew 17 walks (not including one intentional walk). In its final 35 contests, he walked 18 times (not including three intentional walks).

The toughest part for Harris in eventually cracking the Braves’ outfield is the fact that young outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are on the 40-man roster and are ahead of him now. But no one doubts Harris’ talent.

“I think (Harris) could help (the big club). I definitely do,” said Shewmake, the minor-league shortstop. “When he gets his chance, I think he’s going to stick. I don’t think he’s going to be a guy that bounces back and forth.

“He’s a gamer. He’s an absolute gamer. Lights turn on and he gets better – which is hard to do. You watch him out here and you’re like, ‘Man, that guy’s really good.’ Then he gets in a game and is even better.”

When Harris was 7 years old, he played a Wiffle ball game in the Turner Field outfield. In high school, he played multiple games at Truist Park in showcases. His favorite moment as a Braves fan, he said, was Ronald Acuña Jr.’s grand slam against the Dodgers in the 2018 NLDS.

There’s history between Harris and the Braves – and the story could become much better if he eventually stars for his hometown team.

“He has it all,” Shewmake said.