According to its website, Elon University is a “mid-sized private university renowned as a national model for engaged and experiential learning”. Located in the sleepy North Carolina woods, Elon is comprised of five different schools, playing home to roughly 6,800 students. The town that houses the university shares its name and takes up 3.9 square miles of land between Raleigh and Greensboro. Elon, North Carolina’s Wikipedia page mentions the city’s musky vibes (get it?) and celebrates a recent town center renovation that includes a Pandora’s Pies.
For those of us west of the Mississippi River, this faraway institution can be easy to forget, or perhaps not even know about at all. With a relatively small national footprint and largely anonymous reputation—the school’s most notable alumni includes umpire Joe West, former Marlins’ manager Jack McKeon, an actor from Glee, and the guy who produced Silence of the Lambs—the name Elon University doesn’t carry the weight of some its southeast and mid-Atlantic counterparts.
Still, the Seattle Mariners have managed to select four players from Elon in the last four drafts. Both their first-round pick (RHP George Kirby) and eighth-round pick (RHP Ty Adcock) in 2019 played their college ball at Elon, joining corner infielder/outfielder Nick Zammarelli (eighth-round pick, 2016) as former Phoenix in the Mariners’ organization. Seattle also took Elon shortstop Ryne Ogren in the 12th round of the 2018 draft before trading him to Baltimore in April.
Mike Kennedy just completed his 23rd season as head coach of Elon’s baseball program. During his tenure, which followed a playing career at Elon and subsequent stint in the minor leagues, Kennedy has guided the Phoenix from Division II to Division I and heard several of his players’ names called on draft days. Through nearly a quarter century managing at his alma mater, Kennedy says the diligence of the Seattle Mariners stands out.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of pro prospects and guys drafted out of the program,” Kennedy said over the phone. “Seattle does a great job of covering their territories. Typically, when we had a guy that we thought was a pro prospect, we’d see a Mariners guy here. That’s just a tribute to them and the work they put in, not every organization does that. I might get a call from an organization going, ‘How’s this guy?’ but the Mariners were there to see him. They put their own eyes on him and make their own judgments.”
It also certainly helps to have an ace in the hole like Zammarelli, who the Mariners lean on for extra scouting every now and again.
“I remember in spring training this year [Vice President of Scouting] Tom Allison approached me about the arms that Elon was going to have this year and how good of a team they were going to be,” Zammarelli said. “He basically just asked me about what kind of people they were off the field and about their work ethic. The year before when we drafted Ryne Ogren, [former Scouting Director, now special assistant to the general manager] Tom McNamara was asking me about him, so it seems like if Seattle is looking at an Elon guy they’ll track me down to talk about it.”
But what is it about the modest Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) program that attracts the Mariners, specifically in recent years under the Jerry Dipoto-Andy McKay regime?
“I don’t think it was one particular player where all of a sudden, here come the Mariners,” Kennedy shared. “We have a pretty good idea of how to coach guys, how to let them play and figure things out, but also we get a lot of feedback that our guys are playing the right way, not necessarily in terms of, ‘All the Elon guys hit like this or pitch like this’, but certainly we get feedback that our guys are ready when they get to pro ball.”
Zammarelli has years of firsthand experience in both the Elon program and the Mariners’ system. Starting with the Everett AquaSox in 2016, just months after his collegiate career ended with a loss in the CAA tournament, Zammarelli has amassed 350 games with various Mariners’ minor league affiliates. Whether back at Elon, across the country in Modesto, or this season in his first year at Double-A, Zammarelli sees a common thread through his baseball experience.
“You truly leave Elon with a competitive attitude and you leave as a better person, which is exactly what the Mariners preach,” Zammarelli said. “I think the main thing that draws the Mariners to a small Division I school like Elon is the noticeable want to win and hunger that all the players have. From day one on campus Coach Kennedy instills this winning mentality in you. A winning atmosphere is pretty evident.”
Though Ogren has moved on to the Orioles, Zammarelli is still progressing through the ranks, and the latest reinforcements from Kennedy’s clubhouse represent perhaps the best chances of an Elon player becoming a Seattle Mariner.
“The Mariners are on board,” Kennedy noted. “They understand what we’re doing. We’re producing good players. They’ve got some really good ones, man. Zammarelli is on his way; hopefully he’ll crack that big league roster at some point with continued development. They traded Ryne Ogren, who in my opinion was one of the greatest shortstops we’ve ever had, and Ty Adcock might be the surprise of this draft. That kid is really, really special. He’s just cracking his surface on this pitching thing.”
When the Mariners grabbed Adcock in the eighth round, many people saw the 6’0” righty as a potential bullpen piece for Seattle’s future. But during his junior year at Elon, the last of his college career, Adcock also had an .815 OPS with 12 home runs to go with 37 strikeouts in 31 innings on the mound. His college coach, unsurprisingly, raved about Adcock’s ability to excel in multiple facets of the game.
“Adcock is a strong—I’d say country strong—kid. He’s also an unbelievable athlete,” Kennedy quipped. “He can do anything you ask him to. He’s done things on a baseball field that you wouldn’t expect. He’s been behind the plate, he’s played some first base, he’s played right field. He does a lot of things that wow you. He’d have to play eight innings in right field then come in and close the game, meanwhile he’s hitting doubles and stealing bases before coming in and throwing 97.”
Adcock is currently listed on the Arizona League Mariners’ roster, joining fellow 2019 draftees Isaiah Campbell, Adam Macko, and Levi Stoudt in an intriguing pitching staff. Given his explosive velocity and the variation he’s able to put on a tight slider, Kennedy sees some room for tangible improvement.
“When he solely puts his efforts in on the mound he’s going to be pretty special. It’s a clean delivery, it’s around the plate. He’s got to shore up some things strike throwing-wise but it’s not like he’s all over the place. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 100 MPH. It’s in that arm of his. He can throw two sliders: one of them for a strike, and another harder one that’s down and puts away hitters.”
Of course, in using a prized first-round pick on a small school prospect, as the Mariners did on George Kirby, the franchise showed an incredible confidence in Elon’s incubation process.
“We don’t babysit them,” Kennedy said of the university’s handling of players. “We try to prepare them for what’s next. I try to coach life skills, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do that through baseball. You know those insurance commercials: life comes at you fast? It’s no different in baseball. There’s going to be failures, ups and downs, all of that. If you want to play at the next level, you have to be able to handle all that, move on, and learn some things. It’s not a drill sergeant type deal, it’s more of making sure you take care of your business.”
Kirby, the 6’4” hurler taken 20th overall, certainly took care of his business at Elon. The 21-year-old—and son of a former college baseball player—was first team all-conference, Conference Pitcher of the Year, and a member of Baseball America’s All-American third team. The stat lines from some of his starts (a complete game shutout against Bryant with 11 K’s on 101 pitches, 12 strikeouts in six innings at Hofstra) display total dominance of his opponents. Of course, the Colonial Athletic Association is not professional baseball, and Kirby will face the same learning curve that has plagued hundreds of young pitchers. Luckily, at least according to Kennedy, his ace has a profile that should translate nicely to the next levels.
“The best is yet to come with Kirby. The Mariners got a first round pick with talent out the wazoo,” Kennedy gushed. “He is a strike-throwing machine. He’s going to be mid-90s, 93 to 95, regularly. When he needs to get it up to 97 it’s in there. Now it’s about developing that slider, which at times looks like a big-league pitch. That’s a lot of value at [pick] 20. Both of those guys [Adcock and Kirby] have high, high ceilings.”
As the 2019 Mariners sink deeper into the standings and rid the roster of aging, proven talent, the farm system becomes the lifeblood of the organization. A fresh draft class will soon begin their journeys in Arizona and Everett, hoping to one day join forces with the Jarreds, Julios, and Evans of the world at a future date in T-Mobile Park.
While other teams scour dusty high school fields and regional colleges in podunk towns looking for the next superstar, the Mariners hope they have a hidden gem hiding in plain sight in Alamance County, North Carolina.
“We’ve got a great place here that plays really good baseball,” Kennedy said. “Our guys like playing here. If you don’t want to get better, don’t come here. But if you want a chance to play at the next level and get a great degree, this is your spot.”