A look at the many challenges for minor league managers

When I conducted a two-part interview and series on the Orioles farm system recently with director of player development Matt Blood, I asked a question about the Orioles' minor league managers. I inquired how the minor league skipper’s job differs from that of a big league manager.

And the answer was not unexpected for anyone that has followed the minors for any stretch of time. It is very different, and this is where the concept of winning comes into play. You play to win the game, yes that is true, as one once famously said. But on the farm you play first to develop players – this is truly job one.

Here is what Blood said on that topic.

“Well, the major league manager’s job is to win games, do as well as he can to get the team to the playoffs and to, ideally, win the World Series. There is still development going on at the MLB level, but the strategy is to win games. In the minor leagues it’s the inverse of that. In the minor leagues, the No. 1 job is to develop players, so when they make the majors they are ready to contribute. You know winning, trying to win, comes secondary to development. We definitely want competitive teams and players that are trying to win baseball games, but we’re not going to sacrifice development for winning in the minor leagues.”

I asked Blood if the O’s minor league managers make out the lineups or, for development reasons, there is front office input.

“The manager writes out the lineup,” he said. “You know, he has an understanding, though, of the org’s philosophy on development and of every expectation to provide developmental reps. So, he is not making the optimal lineup to win the game that night. He’s making the optimal lineup for development purposes within the Orioles system.”

In 2022, Buck Britton was the Orioles' manager at Triple-A Norfolk, while Kyle Moore was the skipper at Double-A Bowie, Roberto Mercado at High-A Aberdeen and Felipe Rojas Alou Jr. at Single-A Delmarva.

It could be that the four men return to these very same spots for this coming season, but no announcements about minor league staff assignments have been forthcoming just yet.

But all four seemed to deftly handle the challenges of their positions.

Another huge difference between the levels is usage of the pitching staff. Sure, big league starters are held to reasonable pitch counts, but many nights the skipper would love to see that hurler go seven innings, maybe more. On the farm, pitch counts and limits are never far away. No doubt several Baltimore farm skippers have pulled a dominating Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall rather than push him to go deeper in the game, per instructions.

No doubt these same skippers had pitchers they were likely asked not to use on a given night while they waited to see if that pitcher or pitchers would be called up to the majors. Surely, they have played shorthanded, either with fewer than the limit of players they are allowed on their roster or with active players they could not use for one reason or another.

While a major league manager learns to get used to and expect roster churn and change throughout the year, he will never have to watch a middle-of-the-order hitter on a hot streak leave his team via a roster promotion to the next level. But one thing certain about the day-to-day minor league life is roster change.

Sometimes players play out of position as managers cope with roster changes. And many times the organization likes to see its players learn various positions on the job. So that night or any given night, the best defense the manager could put out there is nowhere to be found. It’s life on the farm.

All of this makes evaluating a minor league skipper off his won-loss record an incomplete exercise. If teams value development over winning, how much value can we really put on the record? But yes, it’s sports, and we all like to see winners. Any manager has his record as part of his background and resume. It’s there, even if we can’t truly understand what it means for his abilities to manage.

The minor league skipper, with all the comings and goings, is kind of the face of his team, more than the players, who are, in fact, coming and going. And by definition, the job is to make players better so they will leave your team.

I have long had much respect for O’s minor league skippers, getting to know so many along the way. The current group of four (for the full-season clubs) is a real strong group. They’ve surely had a huge role in the club’s ascension to become the No. 1 farm system in the majors.

Here is a refresher about the recent series of articles with Blood. Click here for part one and here for part two. 

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