Out of the park 

How Elon’s baseball program is developing talented players who are playing in the minor and major leagues.

John Brebbia '16 is a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. Photo credit: Billy Hurst/St. Louis Cardinals
By Madison Taylor

John Brebbia ’16 is the first former Elon University player to make a Major League Baseball roster since 2006, just the third since 1995 and one of only 11 in the history of Elon. But on Dec. 13, 2013, this accomplishment looked unlikely if not impossible. That was the day Brebbia was released by the New
York Yankees, the team that picked him in the 30th round of the June amateur draft at the close of his junior year at Elon.

As excited as Brebbia was on the day he signed his first contract in August 2011, he felt equally disappointed the day he was released. “When they tell you to pack your things, that your services are no longer needed, it’s a real kick in the gut,” Brebbia says in a telephone interview from Miami, where he is on a road swing for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that gave the right-handed relief pitcher an opportunity to reach the top rung of the professional baseball ladder. “A team is telling you you’re
done. Thank you for coming out and thank you for trying. They’re saying you don’t have what it takes.”

Brebbia did not agree with that assessment. With the blessing of his wife and encouragement from friends, including his college coach Mike Kennedy, he took a scenic route to the Major Leagues through the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Even though Brebbia had returned to Elon in 2012 to earn his degree in political science, he wasn’t prepared to let his baseball dream end. He elected to extend his career outside of the traditional minor league system and hoped that a Major League team would notice him in places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Laredo, Texas — places with few amenities, low pay and long bus rides. It’s the last stop before many players leave baseball forever.

Brebbia is now a key member of the Cardinals bullpen, earning a $500,000-plus salary as the team contends in the National League Central. He’s also the leader of a wave of former Elon players advancing through the labyrinthine route from college baseball diamonds to Major League stadiums.

Getting on base

While Brebbia is the only Elon player currently on a Major League roaster, eight others are at varying stages of the minor league or independent league systems. Four players joined those ranks during a historic June amateur draft in 2019. George Kirby became the highest June draft pick in school history (first round, 20th player chosen). For the first time, three Elon players were taken in the initial 10 rounds (Kyle Brnovich and Ty Adcock, round eight). Four were drafted overall. 

This success is a trend. Over the past 10 years, 32 players from Elon have been drafted. Since Kennedy became Elon’s head coach in 1997, 48 Elon players have been drafted. But selection is just the beginning of a difficult and often frustrating process. If any sport proves the cliché that “many are called but few are chosen,” Kennedy says it’s Major League Baseball. 

Coach Mike Kennedy
​Kennedy speaks from experience. He played 162 games over two seasons in the minor leagues after being drafted in the ninth round by the Oakland Athletics following a stellar career as a player at Elon. He returned to Elon as pitching coach before becoming head coach. Kennedy acknowledges that recruiting talented players is important. Most of the student-athletes who come to Elon dream of playing at the next level. Helping players achieve this goal while also encouraging them to pursue a degree is something Kennedy believes in. “It’s hard to compete with the dream, especially when it seems so close. But the reality is, very few guys make it. You could be out of this game in a very short time; that’s the reality of it,” Kennedy says. “The important thing here at Elon is development, helping kids do what they need to achieve their dream of playing at the next level. But we also believe we’re not just developing players, we’re developing people.”

Brebbia’s path is familiar. He transferred to a high school in Florida for his senior year while also playing in tournaments and summer leagues in order to draw the attention of colleges. “The Elon staff reached out to me my senior summer and, of all the places I talked to, Elon was the best fit academically and athletically,” Brebbia says. 

Kennedy believes keeping things in perspective is important. “It’s a balancing act — academics, social situations, the culture on campus and baseball. It’s something we talk about when recruiting. It’s part of the Elon package. Our biggest thing with our kids is, ‘Are you in position to graduate?’ because the odds of making the big leagues are slim. The best thing here is all our kids are on track to graduate.”

Kirby is among those players who decided to go to college after being late-round draft selections out of high school. He was first taken in the 32nd round by the New York Mets. He then came to Elon from Rye, New York, to more fully develop as a player and get an education. He hoped to improve his draft status and did. His 2019 stats include 107 strikeouts and just six walks in 88 1/3 innings. He was the Colonial Athletic Association Pitcher of the Year and an All-American for five different organizations, according
to Baseball America. He’s one of the top pitching prospects in the nation and just signed a $3.24 million contract with the Seattle Mariners.

Getting noticed

Brebbia, who communicates with his former coach via text message, credits the culture Kennedy creates for Elon’s success. “Mike Kennedy’s advice for guys playing professionally is the same as his advice to college guys — work hard and be a good teammate. He is big on not being a selfish player and playing to win and playing for a team. When you win as a team, everyone is doing well. He kind of has that professional baseball mentality in a college setting.”

Kennedy says, ultimately, how much a player with talent is willing to work makes a big difference. “We feel like we do a good job of developing players, but players are the ones who contribute to being better players. That’s not always easy. Things get in the way. There are distractions. But the ones who
do the work have really done well.”

George Kirby made his professional debut on July 13, pitching two scoreless innings for the Everett AquaSox in the Class A Northwest League.
​Recruiting, developing and then sending players to the professional level have translated into a rich era for Elon baseball. Elon entered the 2019 season with great expectations and two highly regarded pitching prospects: Kirby and Brnovich. Elon completed an excellent team season, with a 33-24 record and a conference championship 19-5 mark in the CAA. “Coming into the fall, we knew we had high-profile guys,” Kennedy says. “Brnovich was coming off a strong (2018) spring with his strikeout records. He made the USA Baseball Collegiate National team and got a lot of attention, Adcock was developing as a pitcher and Kirby with his arm and 6-4 lanky frame is what major league scouts are looking for. I told them, if you guys play well, it’s hard not to get noticed.”

Kennedy says scouts who came to Latham Park for performances by Kirby or Brnovich also got to watch Adcock and Cam Devanney, who was eventually drafted in the 15th round. The Mariners have gained the most by attending Phoenix games, drafting four Elon players since 2016, including two this year (Kirby and Adcock). On June 22, Kirby was introduced to fans during a Seattle Mariners game at T-Mobile Park. He posed for photos in a jersey with No. 20 and Kirby written on the back. He made his professional debut three weeks later on July 13, pitching two scoreless innings for the Everett AquaSox in the Class A Northwest League.

Brebbia says players drafted in the first 10 rounds have a much different experience from someone drafted in round 30. “Obviously those guys are really good. First-rounders are really good. Top 10-rounders are really good. The best advice I can give them is to keep getting better and have fun. “I wish the best for those guys who were drafted. It’s going to be a heckuva fun ride. I hope they enjoy it as much as I have. I hope they get to the big leagues soon and they don’t waste too much time because it’s a blast.”

Going pro

Former Elon players now playing professionally as of July 13

Position: Right-handed pitcher
Hometown: Rye, N.Y.
Drafted: In the first round by the Seattle Mariners as the 20th overall pick
Signed: On June 13 by Seattle for a reported $3.24 million signing bonus
Current assignment: Everett AquaSox in the short season Northwest League

Position: Righthanded pitcher
Hometown: Milton, Ga.
Drafted: In the eighth round by the Los Angeles Angels as the 241st pick
Signed: On June 17 by Los Angeles for a reported $168,700 signing bonus
Current assignment: Not reported as of yet.

Position: Righthanded pitcher, outfielder
Hometown: Oxford, N.C.
Drafted: In the eighth round by the Seattle Mariners as the 246th pick
Signed: On June 10 by Seattle Current assignment: Arizona League Mariners (Rookie league)

Position: Shortstop
Hometown: Amherst, N.H.
Drafted: In the 15th round by the Milwaukee Brewers as the 463rd pick
Signed: On June 14 by Milwaukee
Current assignment: Arizona League Brewers (Rookie league)

Position: First base, right field, third base
Hometown: Providence, R.I.
Drafted: An eighth-round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2016
Current assignment: After four minor league stops, Zammarelli is still with the Mariners organization at the Class AA level with the Arkansas Travelers of the Texas League.

Position: Righthanded pitcher
Hometown: Doylestown, Pa.
Signed: As a free agent in June 2018 with the Detroit Tigers
Current assignment: With the Tigers Class A affiliate in West Michigan of the Midwest League. Previous stops include Lakeland, Florida.

Second base
Hometown: Conestoga, Pa.
Drafted: In the 12th round by the Seattle Mariners in 2018
Signed: On June 10, 2018, for a reported $125,000 signing bonus
Traded: By the Mariners to the Baltimore Orioles on April 24, 2019
Current assignment: Now playing for the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds of the South Atlantic League

Position: Righthanded pitcher
Hometown: Rotonda West, Fla.
Drafted: In the eighth round by the Baltimore Orioles in 2018
Signed: On June 15, 2018, for a reported $150,000 signing bonus
Current assignment: With the Aberdeen Ironbirds of the Class A short season New York Penn League

Position: Lefthanded pitcher
Hometown: Margate, Fla.
Drafted: In the 18th round of the 2017 secondary draft by the Toronto Blue Jays
Signed: On June 18, 2017, released by Toronto on March 26, 2019
Current assignment: The Gateway Grizzlies of the Independent Frontier League. Though not considered an affiliated minor league, players in the Independent League can be signed by a Major League organization.

Position: Righthanded pitcher
Hometown: Sharon, Mass.
Drafted: In the 30th round of the 2011 draft by the New York Yankees. Released by New York Dec. 13, 2013.
Signed: As a free agent by the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sept. 15, 2015. On Dec. 10, 2015, was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals from Arizona in the Rule 5 draft.
Current assignment: Made the St. Louis Cardinals Major League roster at the end of spring training in 2019.