An interview with the new top man in the Orioles’ minor leagues

Brian Graham is not new to the Orioles. But as of Jan. 25, he has a new position with the Orioles. Graham was promoted from coordinator of minor league instruction to director of player development. Graham is now the man in charge of the Orioles’ minor leagues.

Graham joins a newcomer to the organization, Kent Qualls, who has been named director of minor league operations, as the top brass heading up the minors.

Graham is beginning his sixth season with the Orioles and has been a well-respected member of the staff, even if he’s been mostly out of the media limelight.

Brian Graham Hitting Tall.jpgHis resume is impressive. From 2002-2007 he was the Pirates’ director of player development. During that six-year period, the Pirates produced the second-highest total of home-grown big leaguers, ranked fourth in minor league winning percentage and were honored as the 2002 Topps Organization of the Year. Graham served as interim general manager of the Pirates in September 2007.

Graham was a minor league manager for nine seasons from 1989-97 with Cleveland. His teams never had a losing record and won at a .589 clip. He managed eight consecutive playoff teams.

Graham has coached in the majors for the Indians and Orioles (in 2000) and was a baseball and football player at UCLA. He was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the fourth round in 1982 and he played five years in the minors.

Did I mention his resume is impressive?

It sure appears that the leadership of the O’s minors is in good hands. This week I conducted a lengthy interview with Graham and here is part one of that, with a second entry to follow in a few days.

For me and the readers, Brian, can you provide an overview of what was involved with your previous position of coordinator of minor league instruction and how that expands and/or changes with your new role?

“As coordinator of minor league instruction, I was responsible for the development process on the field: the instruction, the managers and coaches, as far as the teaching process; making sure with the big league club and our minor leagues that everything we did was consistent; then traveling from team to team to make sure all those areas were done consistently.

“As director of player development, I’ll be responsible for personnel decisions. I’ll oversee the development process. I’ll be responsible for player movement and our instructional process and still maintain the responsibility of communication with the players and staff and players’ agents. It is all-encompassing. There are just so many areas the job takes in.”

One thing that is great for you is this is not a transition at all. You know so many of the coaches and players already. You have additional responsibilities but it’s not like you have to introduce yourself to anyone.

“And that is what it is, additional responsibilities. I don’t believe we need wholesale changes. We have to build on what we have in place now. The reason I love this job - and I’ve been very fortunate in baseball to have been a big league coach, a minor league director, I managed at every level, been an interim general manager, managed winter ball and had a lot of good jobs - but director of player development is the job that I love because it fits my skill set.

“You have so many ... it’s all-encompassing with responsibility in so many areas of the game. Whether it is a leadership role for the staff, communication with agents, it’s a 24/7 job and again that fits my personality.”

You were director of player development for the Pirates from 2002 to 2007. How does that help you now?

“The experience I gained there was invaluable. I worked for Dave Littlefield, who was terrific. The fact that we drafted good players and developed them to big leaguers taught me more about the development process than even managing did. And I managed a long time in the minors.”

Before we started this interview, you mentioned how the culture in the O’s minors was helped by and fed off the major league success last year. How has that been better or changing in the minors?

“There is much more of a process in place now. We have a very solid hitting program. We have our pitching program. We have a very definitive outfield and baserunning and infield program. The players understand and feed off that. They know the instruction and the teaching they are getting is as good as you are going to get in baseball.

“A confidence grows among the players when they understand they are getting good instruction, when they understand how hard the instructors work. If you are not emotionally invested in your job as an instructor, you can’t work here. We have a great group of guys who put their egos in their back pocket and they want the players to get better.

“You didn’t see one person stand up and say, ‘I’m responsible for Manny Machado making the big leagues.’ You didn’t see one person stand up and say, ‘I’m responsible for Dylan Bundy’s success.’ It’s an effort by the Orioles organization and by player development. There are a lot of people that touched Machado in a short period of time, people that had a hand in seeing Bundy’s short progression to the big leagues. And that is exactly what a player development system can be.”

Brian, let’s talk about how your new responsibilities lend themselves to working with the two men heading the whole thing up. What are your thoughts about working with Dan Duquette, who obviously has a very strong player development background?

“Dan and I have a great relationship and I think there was a respect earned going in both directions over the course of last year. I don’t think I had ever met Dan or our paths had crossed much before. I think Dan got to see not only the effort, but the knowledge we had in the minors and the program we had in place.

“I think Dan understands that I understand and love development. It’s something I’m very passionate about and Dan is very player development oriented.”

Buck Showalter has referenced your work many times to reporters and it’s clear the two of you have a strong relationship.

“You know what? Buck and I are cut from the same cloth. The work ethic, the passion, the communication and the ability to be honest with players and to relate to players. I felt a strong bond with Buck when I first met him. He gives you all the confidence in the world.”

You also know with that pair they will know every name and every stat from the minors. It’s not like they will need to call you and ask who is playing well at Delmarva. They’ll know.

“They are going to know and there is also a trust factor involved. When I give my opinion on someone, Buck knows exactly what I’m saying. He knows how I feel about every player in the organization. They’ve had time to evaluate my opinion and they know I am a tough evaluator of players and when I talk about a player, they know what they are getting.”

Let’s talk about promoting players. Of course, each case can be different, but generally speaking, what are you looking for when you promote a player to a higher level?

“First of all, that is the absolute toughest part of the director of player development’s job: knowing the right time to move a player to the next level. The thing I can tell you is that development is a process and takes time and patience and a lot of work by the player and staff.

“I think the difference between being 100 percent sure when a player is ready to move and hoping he is ready based on his physical ability is completely the mental approach to the game. When you see a player that is tough and can handle adversity, who battles through situations and then you evaluate his stats, those are the kind of guys you are very confident in promoting.

“The kids that don’t quite handle the pressure as well, they don’t quite battle through adversity as well, yet their stats match up just as well as another guy, those are the ones you are a little more patient with.”

In looking at last year, seeing things like Jonathan Schoop starting at Double-A and some young pitchers that started at Single-A Delmarva, it looked like the Orioles were aggressive in the minors under Duquette. Is that somewhat of an organizational philosophy to be aggressive with some of these kids?

“Yeah, and Dan was aggressive last year and it seemed to be a productive move. I have some experience to draw upon. I remember when we pushed Manny Ramirez from Double-A to Triple-A and Triple-A to the bigs. As a young kid, I moved Andrew McCutchen from low-A ball to Double-A at the end of the season one year because we wanted to have him ready to go from Triple-A to the majors the next year.

“I’ve seen these moves and how they work. The evaluation process was based on the player’s mentality as much as anything else. Last season, when Buck asked about Manny Machado going to the big leagues, the first thing I said to Buck is he could compete in the big leagues for two reasons. For one, he’s a tough kid, mentally tough. Two, talent plays in the big leagues. I wasn’t concerned about his batting average or the number of errors he made at Bowie. All I knew is he is very talented and a tough kid and those type of kids perform well at the big league level.”

And it seems the large majority of kids can’t do what a Machado or McCutchen can, but I guess when you have one like that you have to know you can be aggressive with those kind of kids.

“Yes, and you better be careful because you don’t want to make a mistake with a player of that stature. I’ve never seen a player, in the history of baseball, who had his career altered by moving him too slowly. But I have seen players whose careers were altered by moving them too quickly. And that is something you have to be careful about.

“If you move a player too quickly, you can put a player in survival mode. You can see a guy start swinging at every first pitch or a pitcher throwing a lot of breaking balls. They get outside of development mode and go into survival mode if you move players too quickly. But the large percentage of these decisions are made based on a player’s mental toughness.”

By the way the Orioles will have a group of about 30 minor leaguers report early on Feb. 18 to the minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla., and it’s likely some of those players will play in some of the Orioles’ early exhibition games. The minor league report day is March 2 for pitchers and catchers and March 7 for position players. The minor league exhibition games begin March 13.

Look for part two of this interview here in a few days.

Farm system rankings rise: Earlier we pointed out that ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the O’s farm system at No. 13 in his latest organizational rankings. Law ranked the O’s No. 24 entering 2011 and No. 17 before last season.

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