We've all heard this many times over the last year, not only here at Lookout Landing, but it's also been picked up by sites all over the internet: the Mariners have sucked at developing major league talent. But in all the words written, and all the supposed analysis of the players involved, I have not seen any kind of comprehensive and thourough examination of the subject. It's one thing to look at a few players and make sweeping conclusions based on those few, but it's another, more valuable analysis, to look at everything the M's have done in this area to get a complete look at the whole picture.
To form this more complete picture, I relied on the terrific and very useful Baseball-Refence draft tool, which allows you to pick certain parameters to return just the data you want. From this, I built a dataset out of all the draft picks from the years 1986-2011, giving me the ability to see how teams have historically done on the whole, as well as how the Mariners have done specifically. Everything that follows was based on this dataset, something like twenty thousand or so drafted players in all, which included the 3,954 players that eventually played in the majors. First, to establish some historical perspective, I want to present a table that shows the average WAR produced by major league teams through each year of the draft, with a comparison to the Mariners.
Overall, we can see that the M's have historically been very good in the draft, producing around 4 WAR per year more than other teams. They have of course also been the beneficiary of slightly favorable drafting position during that time, including two #1 picks, by far the most valuable of all picks. And they took great advantage of those two #1 picks, drafting two of the best players in baseball history, which is what has really boosted them above the average.
I had previously estimated that teams on the whole would draft about 22 career WAR of players per year, and that looks to be pretty close to historical norms. Looking through the years and WAR produced, we see very large totals through the first several years of that period, which were inflated by the 4 team expansion in the 90's, and after that, it settles in around that 22 WAR number, with generally decreasing production as you get nearer the present time, as there are more players with unfinished careers. There's also good evidence from other sources that the total WAR produced through the draft has been waning through the decades as teams have increasingly been bringing in players from countries other than the U.S and Canada. So while I would estimate something like 22 WAR produced per team per year from the draft, it's a bit of a fluid number, with the expectation of slightly decreasing returns year-to-year.
Looking through the different eras for the Mariners, it looks like the general thought that the regimes of both Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi truly were horrible at drafting is confirmed. There was very little return through those years, with only two drafts during that nine year period where they got anything like a decent crew of players, and really only two players of note, Adam Jones (2003, 27.4) and Doug Fister (2006, 19.1). Maybe Chris Tillman (2006, 9.2) will add himself to that list at some point. On average, those teams produced less than half the talent that other teams did.
I want to digress for a moment here, as I ran across something that I kind of knew a bit about before but hadn't really realized just how amazing it was until I put it all together. The focus is on the draft here, but I couldn't help but be blown away by the amount of talent Gillick acquired outside of the draft during the time he was the M's GM. While Gillick's organization performed very poorly in the draft, he more than made up for it with international (and other amateur) players. And "more than made up for" is a Grand Canyon sized understatement. During the time he was the Mariners GM, they acquired Kazuhiro Sasaki (3.7 WAR), Ichiro Suzuki (59.5), José López (10.1), George Sherrill (5.1), Asdrubal Cabrera (21.8), Shin-Soo Choo (26.7), Luis Valbuena (5.5), and Félix Hernández (48.1). Those eight players have accounted for 180 WAR (and still counting) during their careers. That is an absolutely astounding collection of talent to have acquired outside the draft in a four-year period, perhaps unprecedented in baseball history. By the time those players are finished with their careers, they may have upwards of 220 combined WAR, and it's not out of the question they may hit 240. That average of 50 or so career WAR per year in signings completely blows away the expected 11 WAR from players obtained outside the draft, and even dwarfs the average return through the draft, the area where teams usually get the majority of their talent. That is nothing short of phenomenal.
But this examination is about the present Mariners regime, so we want to look again at the table and focus on the last three years of this period from 2009-2011. So far, teams on the whole have produced on average 17.3 WAR through the draft, while the M's have gotten 35 WAR, pretty much lapping the field. That 35 WAR figure places them at #5 for all teams during that period. On the face of it, you would conclude the M's have been fabulous with their drafting and developing programs, which is at drastic odds with the current narrative. But we know that the M's have had the advantage of some very high picks during that period, specifically two #2's, plus two other first round compensation picks. Because they were generally picking higher than most other teams, you would expect that they would have gotten more from those drafts from other teams, and perhaps on balance haven't done as well as other teams, all things considered. So what we really want to look at is how much the M's could have expected to get from those picks so far, and compare that to how much they actually have gotten.
One thing that's really important to understand if we're making any attempt to analyse these drafts is the realization that the majority of the players chosen here are only partially through their careers. There is a whole lot more left that's going to be coming from these players, so we're only getting a glimpse of the final story. Some eventually very good players may not have even made the majors yet, and some of the players that have made the majors may peak early and not contribute much in the future. There's no way to predict what shape all these players careers are going to take, so things may look quite a bit different than they do now when all is said and done. But if anyone is wanting to form an opinion about how the M's have done through drafting and developing under Jack Z. to this point, this is what we have to go on.
So to figure out what all of the 40 to 50 picks from each year could have been expected to produce so far, we can look at all those players in the dataset that were drafted with those certain picks. Dustin Ackley was selected six years ago in 2009 with the #2 pick, so we can look at all the #2 picks from 1986 through 2009, add up all the WAR they accumulated during their first six years after being drafted, and come up with an average expectation for that pick. For Hultzen, taken with the #2 pick in 2011, I looked at those same players through their first four years after being drafted. That works pretty good for the #2 pick, because the majority will end up playing in the majors at some point, but as you get further down in the draft, fewer picks end up making the majors, and there's quite a lot of variablility with those picks, so I went with a wider range of overall picks to build an expected WAR. For Nick Franklin, for instance, taken with the #27 pick, I looked at the picks from 25 to 29, five overall picks to get a firmer approximation of what a pick in that area of the draft could be expected to do. For picks taken from #50 through #100, I used 7 overall picks to build a comparison, consisting of the pick in question and 3 on each side. For all picks taken after #100 in the draft, I took the average of what all picks have produced from #101 through the end of the draft. For example, the M's chose 47 players after the #100 overall pick in 2009, and all picks taken after #100 in the 2009 draft have averaged 0.092 WAR so far, so the M's would have been expected to get (47*0.092)=4.3 WAR from those picks. So far, those players that have made the majors for the M's (Anthony Vasquez, James Jones) have produced -1.8 WAR, so they're lagging behind by 6.1 WAR.
If I failed to make all that clear, perhaps the table will help.
"XWAR" is "expected" WAR, the historical amount those picks have produced through their first six years after being drafted. We can see that the M's drafting and development from the 2009 draft has looked great so far, well better than what you would have expected from those picks. They've even already surpassed what a typical team might expect from the whole careers of those players, and we're only six years in. Kyle Seager looks like an odds-on bet to provide at least 30 WAR for his career, and while Ackley's career to date hasn't gone as well as many people would have liked it to go, he's actually been better to this point than most #2 picks. He certainly didn't look good this year, but because he was the second overall pick in the draft, he's going to get several more opportunities to show he can still be a good major league player, and will likely add to his current WAR total. Nick Franklin could still make something of himself, and there's got to be some kind of chance that either James Jones or Steve Baron could make themselves useful to a major league team. Maybe none of Franklin, Jones, or Baron ever do anything else in the majors, but even just considering the careers of Seager and Ackley, the M's will likely end up producing players from that draft that total around 40 WAR, far surpassing the needed 22 WAR to stay on par with other teams.
The M's haven't been quite as successful with their 2010 draft class, but they are at least staying on par with other teams. Paxton and Walker have been fairly productive so far, but both have had problems either staying healthy or consistently good. A lot of their good work was eaten up by a rather atrocious stint by Stefen Romero in 2014. Too early to get much of an idea what Paxton or Walker might do for their career, either or both could turn out to be terrific pitchers, or either or both could fizzle out in a few years. Among players still active in the minors, there's always a chance that one of Stephen Pryor, Marcus Littlewood, Jabari Blash, Romero, Stephen Landazuri, Forrest Snow, or Stephen Kohlscheen could be a contributing major league player in the future. They've all looked like pretty interesting prospects at times, although chances are you get at most one of those players that actually ends up doing much. This draft year looks like it's pretty much going to be on the shoulders of Walker and Paxton.
We're getting so close to the present day that looking at 2011 draft results yields even more uncertainty than the previous two years. While Hultzen has looked like a total bust at #2 so far-- and the odds still look firmly stacked against him -- Brad Miller looks like a real find at #62. He's not only produced more than you could expect from the whole career of a guy taken from that area of the draft, he's already surpassed the whole careers of all but 18 of the 182 players picked in his comparison group. Maybe I'll rephrase that, because that doesn't seem to have much impact. There have been a total of 182 players in the dataset taken with the picks from #59 to #65, and Miller in only his first four years after the draft has already had a better career than all but 18 of them. You don't expect to get a player of his calibre from the #62 pick. In fact, he's produced more to this point than you would normally expect from a guy taken with the #2 overall pick in the draft (the Hultzen comp's). Carter Capps and Carson Smith have also chipped in, so this draft class looks pretty good for the time being even without anything from Hultzen. There are still a few other players that might change the outlook in the future, but you'd have to be hoping pretty hard on guys like John Hicks, Tyler Marlette, or Jordan Pries to come through. Because relievers can be pretty fickle, and it would be a (pleasant) surprise to get anything at all out of Hultzen, this draft class is probably going to go as Brad Miller goes. So far, so good, but there's still a long way to go.
The bottom line? Using historical comp's to establish a baseline for what we could expect the M's to have produced from these drafts, a typical team would have expected about 21.6 WAR so far, while the M's have gotten 35. While we can never predict how players may do in the future, they're well ahead of the game so far, and we'd have to see either pervasive stagnation and/or sudden downturn from a few of these players to end up with results that aren't at least league average-ish. Quite likely, these three drafts in total will end up looking really good by the time everything is said and done (in about 15 years or so).
We can see that the M's have had no problems producing good players from the draft in that time, so why do they have the reputation as being incompetent at developing players? It certainly hasn't seemed to be the case, at least going by recent draft results. Most of that pervasive viewpoint seems concentrated on four players: two acquired via trade, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero; and two through the draft, Dustin Ackley and Danny Hultzen. These four players are the ones most often cited when people make a case that the M's have been deficient in developing players.
Let's start with the easy one, Dustin Ackley. After having been chosen with the #2 overall pick in the draft, big things were expected of him. But should they have been? Well he was the #2 pick, after all. A team should get the second best player from that draft, right? Except it almost never turns out that way.
|1986||2||39||Red Sox||Curt Schilling||RHP||79.9|
|1989||1||7||White Sox||Frank Thomas||1B||73.7|
|1989||4||110||Red Sox||Jeff Bagwell||3B||79.6|
|1991||18||488||White Sox||Mike Cameron||OF||46.5|
|1994||1||12||Red Sox||Nomar Garciaparra||SS||44.2|
|1995||1||17||Blue Jays||Roy Halladay||RHP||64.6|
|1998||38||1139||White Sox||Mark Buehrle||LHP||60.0|
|1999||2||52||Devil Rays||Carl Crawford||OF||39.7|
|2004||2||65||Red Sox||Dustin Pedroia||SS||44.5|
|2006||1||3||Devil Rays||Evan Longoria||3B||42.8|
|2007||1||1||Devil Rays||David Price||LHP||26.9|
|2009||1||25||Angels via Yankees||Mike Trout||CF||35.2|
Only one time in the 24 years from 1986 to 2009 has the #2 pick turned out to be one of the top two players (Justin Verlander, 2004). And only 5 times has the #2 overall pick been among the 10 best players from a draft (Greg Swindell #8, Mark Mulder #9, Josh Beckett #4, Justin Verlander #2, Alex Gordon #5). Even the #1 pick is no sure thing, as there have only been 4 times in the last 26 years where the top pick in the draft has turned out to be one of the top two players, and the #3 pick has turned out to be one of the best players only once. Even the top picks in the draft rarely turn out to be among the actual best players, is what I'm trying to say. And what really stands out when you start looking over draft results is how much of a crapshoot it ends up being. Look again at that table and notice how many late round draft picks turn out to be among the top two players. Twelve out of those 48 best players listed were taken after at least 100 other players had been taken off the board. How does that even happen? Mark Buehrle was taken in the 38th round with the 1138th pick. Roy Oswalt was taken in the 23rd round with the 684th pick. Both turned out to be the best players from their draft class*. How could major league teams be so bad at identifying the best talents in any particular year? Overall, they kind of get it right, as there is definitely a correlation between pick # and ultimate success in the majors. After all, we can see from the table that around 60% of the two best players have been taken in the first round. But those picks tend to be scattered all through the first round, more often not among the first few picks, and that still leaves 40% of the best players taken after the first round. It's anything but an exact science, and there are many many players that "slip through the cracks". A good percentage of the best players in baseball come from players that really weren't recognized as having that kind of talent. And many players that are assumed to have the kind of talent needed to be good players really don't. You just can't assume you're going to get a good player with a top pick.
*Some players are still active from those draft classes, so it's possible that either Buehrle or Oswalt could be run down for the top spot.
The same thing applies to prospect evaluators whose job is to assess minor league talent and identify the prospects who are going to become the best major leaguers. Scott McKinney at Royals Review compiled a list of Baseball America's historical top 100 and matched it up to major league outcomes and assigned success/fail rates for those players. Turns out that even those players listed among the best 100 prospects in baseball generally have somewhat poor outcomes in the big leagues. Two-thirds of them fail to make much of an impact, falling below his threshold of 1.5 WAR per year through their club controlled years. Even for those in the top twenty, the range where you'd really expect BA to nail it down, success rates have been barely better than a coin flip.
The flip side of this would be the players that aren't recognized as being top talents but end up being among the best players. Jeff Sullivan penned an article for Just a Bit Outside looking for that very thing. Turns out right around 40% of "good" players (those that met his threshold of 2 WAR average over the three years he looked at) were players that had never appeared in a BA top 100 list. These guys were not expected to be among the better players in the game, and yet, here they are. That 40% mark is getting close to being half of all good players in baseball, and as Jeff said, "You usually don't expect non-top-100 prospects to develop into quality regulars". Which really shouldn't come as any surprise to Mariner fans, as we've watched both Kyle Seager and Brad Miller become quality regulars, even though never having been recognized as top prospects. Going further back, there was Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. Perhaps Ketel Marte is next in line?
And yet another article looked at success rates for the first 30 picks in the draft. Michael Jimenez penned the article for viewfromthebleachers.com. The whole article contains alot of good information about how many, and how long it usually takes to get to the majors, so I would recommend giving it a read to get the whole perspective. But one table in particular is very relevant to this subject, so I'll reproduce it here.
Even among top five picks, only half become "good" players. And a "good" player is a bit of a relative term, as it would depend on your own view of what qualifies as "good". He uses the same threshold as Scott McKinney, any player that achieved at least 1.5 WAR per year. That lower bound is a fairly good player, a decent player, but nothing special. Again, we can see that Dustin Ackley falls in with the successful group by this measurement. While as many as 30% of those picks become what are termed "superior", and Ackley certainly hasn't become that, that still leaves far more players that never reach that level, so chances were pretty high that he was going to fall short of that. At least the M's didn't get washed out with that pick, which happens about half the time.
So teams and prospect evaluators alike kind of get it mostly right, but there is still a whole lot of "swing-and-a-miss" in their game. It just seems exceedingly tough to predict which players are the actually really talented ones, and which just aren't, no matter how nice they look as amateurs or minor leaguers.
So how does this apply to the Mariners? As mentioned above, the biggest offenders in most peoples eyes include Ackley, Smoak, and Montero. All were ranked in BA's top twenty at one point, topping out around #11 or 12. Based on past position players, each should have had about a 60% chance of "succeeding" as defined by McKinney as an average of at least 1.5 WAR a year. We can see that Ackley meets his criteria as a success, but both Smoak and Montero would be considered failures. It would have been unreasonable to expect all three to turn out to be good players, but certainly the odds would favor at least two turning out to be good players, right? Well, they do, but maybe not to the extent you might think. Here are the odds for all the possible outcomes:
6.4% no good players
93.6% at least one good player
64.8% at least two good players
21.6% three good players
So it's obvious that the M's didn't do so well with getting only one hit out of those three players. But getting only one wasn't anything like an highly improbable outcome. You would expect that around one-third of the time.
But Hultzen has to be accounted for somewhere, as he was also a #2 pick and ranked as high as #21 on BA's list. Being a pitcher and not rated as highly as the others, he had a much lower chance, right around 20%, or about a 1 in 5 shot at being a good major league player. I kind of hesitate to even include him, because we know the injury attrition rate for pitchers is really high -- and there have been several other pitchers from that draft that have had serious arm injuries -- but I suppose that would be one reason that should give pause to teams when they consider drafting a pitcher that high. But we can see that there's been a lot of other teams that have drafted pitchers with high picks in recent years, so it's not like the M's are alone in that regard. In the last decade, Brady Aiken, Mark Appel, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Startsburg, David Price, and Luke Hochevar were all taken with the first overall pick, Tyler Kolek, Danny Hultzen, Jameson Taillon, and Greg Reynolds were all taken with the #2 pick, and Carlos Rodon, Jon Gray, and Trevor Bauer were all taken with the #3 pick. It's not like teams are shying away from taking a gamble on pitchers with the early picks. And we don't really know that Hultzen will turn out to be a bust. While it's not looking good for him right now, injuries like the one he suffered can take a long time to come back from, and there's no reason to completely write him off just yet. Pitchers get injured, are you just not going to draft pitchers?
But that Hultzen pick right now looks not so good, so let's call it a failure. And getting only one out of the other three to hit doesn't look good on the M's part either. Even with Hultzen's low odds, adding him into the mix would provide something like a 70-75% chance that they would get at least two good players out of that bunch, and as it stands right now, they've only got one to show for it. And of the four, there was probably a better than even chance of getting what you would consider a superior player. That should certainly count as a failure on the M's on the part of their.....well, failure of something. Was it poor amateur talent evaluation in the case of Hultzen? Was it poor minor league prospect evaluation in the cases of Smoak and Montero? Was it poor player development? Can we just chalk it all up to poor luck, because as we can see, there's a huge amount of uncertainty involved with scouting and development? Or did it have nothing to do with the M's at all and is just a matter of our perception based on poor prospect evaluation by Baseball America? Just because BA thought they were really good prospects, doesn't mean they really should have been thought of that way. I mean, we've seen both Montero and Smoak play. Neither is what you would call terrifically athletic. Maybe they just didn't have the talent to begin with. It's not like BA is anything like perfect, we can see they miss quite often with their evaluations.
I suppose you could make a decision in your own mind, but I can't see how you'd ever have the ability to know where to place the blame for Smoak, Montero and Hultzen. It would be only a guess and no more. There's no possible way to untangle all these different elements and figure out how much a part they all played. We just can't tell the difference between talent evaluation, development, whatever intangibles might be present within a player that determine how good he can eventually be, and, well, just plain old bad luck. Very definitely, something went wrong if you end up with only one good player from the bunch. That much is clear to see. It's a much harder proposition to assign where the blame might lie. Or whether there really is any blame to assign at all, as we can see from the vast amounts of prospects from all teams in baseball that just never become what people think they can be. Prospect failure is hardly something that's exclusive to the M's.
But that represents only the "failures" of the M's development program. To get a fair picture, we also have to look at the successes. And it turns out the the M's have had their share of those under Jack Z. Among the players that could be credited as successes, you can come up with this list, with career-to-date WAR in parenthesis: Jason Vargas (10.8), Doug Fister (18.5), Michael Saunders (5.0), Michael Pineda (6.3), Charlie Furbush (1.2), Tom Wilhelmsen (4.5), Yoervis Medina (2.9), Dustin Ackley (7.9), Kyle Seager (16.2), and Brad Miller (5.4). Not all of those players have been tremendously successful or would qualify as a success using the definition above, but they were developed under the M's watch and have all been good contributors to a major league team. And, most of them are nowhere near finished with their careers (we would hope), so as a group, we can expect them to continue to be productive players for a while. And then you also have some pitchers who have looked pretty good during their time in the big leagues but haven't been around long enough to really qualify as a success just yet: Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Carson Smith. The jury's still out on them, but we've been able to see that there's some talent there, and any of them could end up with a really good major league career.
So the Mariners have certainly had quite a few success stories, including two players who would probably be seen as All-Star level talents in Fister and Seager. Well, Fister has never actually made an All-Star team, but had a stretch of three years where he basically pitched at an All-Star level. And then there's several other players that have been good supporting players. Well, all teams are going to be able to claim the occasional success story out of non-prospect types, but that looks like a pretty impressive bunch. While some of their top prospects haven't faired well, they've been able to get good players out of guys that weren't seen as top prospects. What does it matter if your top prospects don't pan out if you can get good players out of those not really expected to amount to anything? In the long run, it all equals out. There's been numerous times when people have pointed out that if Kyle Seager had been taken with the #2 pick in 2009, and Ackley had been taken with their third round pick, everybody would be ecstatic over how things worked out. Not only would they have done a terrific job getting an All-Star out of that #2 pick -- a much better outcome than you would typically expect -- they could also claim a nice bonus by getting a guy in a lower round that turned out to be a valuable supporting player. What does it matter where each were taken in the draft if the end result turned out great?
And why do some people, when talking about the M's player development, start out with "If it wasn't for Kyle Seager...." "Except for Kyle Seager....." "Who other than Kyle Seager....."? Why would you want to exclude Kyle Seager? He's been a huge success story for the M's player development program. "If it wasn't for Mike Trout, the Angels...." "If it wasn't for Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona.....". Why would you even think of discounting Kyle Seager? It's almost as if people think he didn't really happen. You may as well be saying "If it wasn't for all the strikeouts, Randy Johnson would have been a lousy pitcher".
Kyle Seager was taken in the third round with the overall #82 pick. Even at that, he was considered by many to be a "reach" by the Mariners, and most of the scouting reports at the time placed his ceiling -- not his likely outcome, but his ceiling, the absolute best they thought he could become -- as a decent utility player in the majors. Even during the time he was coming up through the minors, he was never seen as a top prospect, but has blossomed into one of the best thirdbaseman in the majors. I'm pretty sure no one was predicting he'd become a Gold Glove caliber defender at third, or that he was going to hit with the authority he has in the majors. Even if you think that calling him an All-Star or one of the best thirdbaseman in the majors is hyperbole, you can't deny that he's at least a very solid and productive full-time major leaguer. He was basically seen as a fringe major leaguer at best, but he's become much much more than that. So if he really wasn't much of a talent, then how did he become such a good player? You're going to have to give a lot of credit to the M's development staff for that, right?
So if we can see that the M's certainly had some successes (as well as failures), why does the common opinion seem to be that they just suck at player development? To be honest, it looks to me like it's a combination of both unreasonably high expectations and some highly visible failures with a few of their highly rated prospects. And also Dustin Ackley, who is felt by many to be a failure, but has actually been a success by any objective measure I can find.
I get the feeling that many people think a good farm system should pump out 2 to 3 good players a year. But that's a pipe dream, and teams usually get much less than that. You can probably find some examples of a team has been able to do something comparable over a period of a few years, but those times would be few and far between, and don't really represent a reasonable case. Taking all players in the draft dataset through the year 2000 that have accumulated 10 WAR for their career, teams on average have produced 0.8 good players per year. That only includes drafted players, of course, so we'd have to account for undrafted players, which generally account for about a third of all WAR produced in the majors. So 1.2 good players per year, on average, from a farm system. And it's not like 10 career WAR is a particularly high bar to clear to be considered a "good" player. That's something like a 1-1.5 WAR per year player over an 8 to 10 year career. Like, say, a Todd Walker. Played in 12 different seasons, three of which were very partial years bookending the meat of his career, during 8 of which he was a more or less full-time player. Best season was 2.3 WAR, while otherwise he fluctuated between there and replacement level. Decent player, helped his team out, but was nothing special. In fact, overall, his career looks a lot like what you might expect from Dustin Ackley by the time he's through. If 10 career WAR fails to meet your expectations for a good player, we can look at all players that produced at least 20 WAR for their careers. That would be something like a player that topped out at 3 WAR or so for a few years, and was otherwise a decent player for maybe another half-dozen seasons. An Aaron Sele. Three times reached 3 WAR for a season, three other times over 2 WAR, and some inconsistency over his 15 years in the big leagues. That's probably more in line with what many people would think of as a "good" player. You can expect around 0.6 of those players per year per team. Or 3 good players every five years, because you can't have 0.6 of a player within the current legal environment. Does that seem awfully low to you? If it does, then it seems to me that that could be the primary reason why you've been disappointed in the Mariners player development program recently. Producing even one or two of those kind of players per year is more than what teams can usually manage to come up with.
So what's the truth about the M's drafting and player development? Well, we don't know. There is no way we can know. I just chose that title to suck you in and get you to read this post.
Look, we'd like to pretend that we're just as smart as the professionals that run an organization and can dissect everything the M's do and then form firm conclusions in our minds about the various merits of all they've done. But even major league teams can't figure out for sure which players are going to become the good ones, and which ones just aren't cut out for it. With the number of busted prospects and wasted draft picks and surprise players and huge albatross contracts, it's pretty apparent that trying to predict any one player's future is an almost impossible task. That's why you end up seeing players like Matt Bush taken with the #1 overall pick and players like Mike Cameron not taken until the 18th round. With all of that uncertainty, how can we, as basically amateurs with (mostly) a lack of experience and training within baseball, really pretend we can suss out all of these multiple factors and assign credit to this factor, or this one, or that one?
These are unknowable things, even for the people who have been involved in baseball for almost their entire lives and are paid vast amounts of money to be good at these things. Were the M's able to produce good players because they have a good development staff? Have they really had a poor development staff but have been able to compensate for that with really good player acquisitions? Or is it something else? There's no way we can really know things like this.
But what we can do is lump it all together, and forget about trying to distinguish between all these different factors. We can throw development, player acquisition, player intangibles, good old-fashioned luck and all in to a blender and come out with an homogenized whole. We can say that no matter however much certain factors contributed to the whole, the end result has been that the M's during the time under Jack Zduriencik's leadership had no problem producing players for their major league club. They may not be leading the way among all clubs, but they've been at least on par with other teams in that regard, and certainly far from inept. Which shouldn't lead us to conclude that they've been bad at player development. The evidence is just not there to make that conclusion. It doesn't follow from what we observe.