Brian Graham: “We have one of the best minor league systems in baseball”

Today in this space, I conclude my two-part interview with Brian Graham. On Jan. 25, the Orioles promoted Graham from coordinator of minor league instruction to director of player development. Graham is now the man in charge of the Orioles’ minor leagues.

In his sixth season with the club, 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.

He brings a long resume to this position. He spent six seasons as Pittsburgh’s director of player development and nine years as a minor league manager, posting a winning percentage of just under .600. He’s been a key player in the O’s minors for a while now.

Click here to read part one of the interview. Now here is part two:

In terms of the minor league managers, will they be making a lot of their own decisions - like where to hit guys, when to rest guys - or is some of that more organizational and management needs to be brought in on some things?

“It’s more organizational, but I’d say it’s 50-50. I’ll give recommendations as I have in the past on where guys should hit based on what we want to see and recommendations about time off, but you do want your managers to manage the game. You want them to have freedom to understand, for instance, sometimes you might put Xavier Avery down in the eight- or nine-hole to give him a little break. Other times you want to leave him up there at leadoff. There is obviously some thought process that goes into decisions that are made.

“We have a great group of managers by the way. Ron Johnson and Gary Kendall at the upper levels do a terrific job. Ryan Minor does an outstanding job and Orlando Gomez has been outstanding in the time I’ve been here.”

Kent Qualls is new to the organization and moves into a prominent position. How will the relationship with the two of you work out?

“Kent has a very important role. He will handle the administrative side and deal a lot with our affiliates and the paperwork in the office. He’ll be involved with our Latin American program and he’ll help me in every aspect. I enjoy the relationship we’re developing. Dan (Duquette) was very clear in his explanation that I would be the director of player development and be responsible for the development of players and the on-field staff and player movement. Kent has a very important role on the administrative side.”

It is clear you are not considered an office guy. I would assume, as a guy who has been on the field most of his life, does that continue now?

“Yeah, I’m going to stay in uniform for the time being. I did it both ways in Pittsburgh. I would go the office in a coat and tie and later head to the ballpark and put the uniform on.

“I’m going to stay in uniform because I learned in that first experience I lost touch a bit when I came off the field. Sitting on the bench during a game in the dugout, you learn so much about a player, way more than you can sitting in the stands. There is such an understanding when you see a player work an at-bat and then come back and sit with you and explain what was going through his head. It gives you such insight and that is a valuable part of my job, so I am going to stay in uniform and be part of the process.”

Do you plan to visit all the teams or will you have to focus at times on certain ones?

“I think early on I’ll be involved with every team. As the season progresses, you tend to spend more time in places where Dan would like you to or Buck (Showalter) would like you to. Moreso with players you feel have a better chance to be big league players. We don’t discriminate but we are also smart enough to see that some players are more talented.”

This time of year, you see plenty of rankings coming out from various analysts and they can be interesting to read. Very broad question, but what is your take on the current state of the minor leagues?

“We have one of the best minor league systems in baseball. My dad taught me years ago that you have to evaluate the evaluators. When you talk about a minor league system and look at its structure and the instructional process, if that’s your evaluation process, we have one of the best systems in baseball. If you look for who has the most prospects, that is just someone’s opinion.

“That is where you have to evaluate the evaluators. If people don’t think we have as many prospects as another organization there should be a special category that says ‘most prospects’ as opposed to ‘best minor league system.’”

Is it personal to you and the coaches if you read criticism of the minors?

“It’s personal because we work so hard and have such a great group of guys. I see the time that Ron Johnson puts in with the players at Triple-A and see what Gary Kendall, Denny Hocking and Kennie Steenstra did last year at Double-A. They never missed a beat with early work or extra work, out there every single day. Our guys work hard. If someone were to criticize anything about our system, I would take it personally because I know how hard we work.”

In setting the rosters for opening day, what is important? Will a lot of that depend on what you see on the field from players this spring?

“That will be part of it, but the larger part will be what is best for our players’ development and (we also look at) performance prior to this season. We take into consideration last year and this spring, but also what is best for their development.

“To give you an example, if we have (Kevin) Gausman and (Dylan) Bundy and Mike Wright all end up as starters at Double-A, you certainly want a defense behind them that’s going to catch the ball and a catcher who can catch and throw. There is a process that goes into the makeup of the club based on development. Bundy, Gausman and Wright are obviously priority development guys and you’d like to put a good team out there behind them.”

Does that seem likely that is where that trio will be, knowing things could change later?

“That is certainly a possibility. I’m not going to say that is going to happen but it’s certainly a possibility.”

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