The Royals made a big decision this off-season when they decided to move Whit Merrifield from second-base to center field full time in 2020. Essentially, the move showed that the Royals believe that the 25-year-old Nicky Lopez is the Royals’ second-baseman for the foreseeable future.
To many Royals fans, that’s a huge deal, especially considering Whit lead the American League in hits a year ago and was an All-Star in 2019, while Lopez barely was serviceable at the plate. Whit put up a 110 wRC+ and 2.9 WAR in 162 games and 735 plate appearances. On the flip side, Lopez put up a 56 wRC+ and -0.2 WAR in 103 games and 404 plate appearances, not exactly sterling signs of production. Yes, Lopez was technically a better defender than Whit at the second base position, especially when Royals fans look at the metrics: Nicky posted a higher Def rating than Whit (6.9 to Whit’s -7.4), according to Fangraphs, and he also was seven runs better in terms of OAA (3 to Whit’s -4), according to Statcast. And yet, even though Nicky may be a better defensive player than Whit, his paltry numbers at the plate still didn’t help his case among Royals faithful in the comparisons of him to Whit.
While it seems like Lopez will be the Opening Day second-baseman, what can Royals fans expect from Lopez in 2020? Will Lopez step up and surprise, especially at the plate? Or will his offensive woes and struggles continue for a second straight year? If the latter does happen, it’s hard to see Lopez have much of a future in Kansas City: after all, the Royals don’t need another defensive-only middle infielder in the mold of Chris Getz or Chris Owings.
However, if Lopez can truly break out in 2020, and be the hitter he was in the minors, then he could be a key cog in terms of helping the Royals surprise in the American League Central when play begins.
It has never really come easy for Lopez as a baseball player, even back to his days in college at Creighton. Lopez posted an .861 OPS and .306 batting average in 247 plate appearances his senior season with the Jays, but was only drafted in the 5th round by the Royals in the 2016 MLB Draft. Yet despite the low expectations, Lopez has continued to hit and show tremendous plate discipline as he progressed through the minors. What made Lopez’s progression even more impressive was how he adjusted and succeeded each and every year. After only hitting .259 in Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2017 in 73 games, he ended up hitting .331 and actually walked more than he struck out with the Naturals in 2018. After he hit only .278 in 57 games to finish the 2018 season in Omaha, he ended up .353 in a 31 game sample with the Storm Chasers before eventually getting called up to Kansas City for the remainder of the season.
Safe to say, Lopez has adjusted and succeeded every single year as a professional since he broke into the the minors with Burlington in 2016. And that is a good sign that Lopez could continue that trend of improvement in 2020 with the Royals at the plate.
Now, it won’t come easy for sure. Lopez’s lack of power, while not a death knell to his Major League hopes, doesn’t help his cause. According to Baseball Savant, Lopez ranked in the 4th percentile in Exit Velocity, 2nd percentile in hard hit percentage, 1st percentile in xSLG, and 0th percentile in terms of xwOBA. While nobody is expecting Nicky to turn into Whit or Ben Zobrist at second in 2020, those numbers have to improve somewhat if Lopez wants to succeed at the Major League level. He’s not a proficient base stealing threat either by any means, so to be a slap-hitting offensive player without much power doesn’t help his cause at the plate.
That being said, already there have been some positive signs that Lopez is turning it around. Lopez put on some weight this off-season and tried to bulk up and gain strength, similar to what Whit did when he first broke in with the Royals. And so far, the early returns in Spring Training in Surprise were good until the season was drastically cut short. In 10 games and 28 plate appearances, Lopez posted a slash of .360/.407/.640 with a home run, two doubles and a triple in Cactus League play. While it was Spring Training, and the dry environments of the Cactus League favor hitters, the fact that Lopez was demonstrating some gap power while not sacrificing his immaculate batting eye (two walks and three strikeouts) helped give Royals fans hope that Lopez was ready to improve in 2020.
It is most likely that the Royals’ season will be shortened from 40-80 games, with the total depending on how quickly our COVID situation improves here in the United States. It seems like things are stabilizing a little case wise, and at the very least, it appears that testing has ramped up considerably over the past couple of weeks, which is a much needed to step to identify and contain this virus and those affected. Furthermore, baseball has not only started in Taiwan with the CPBL, but also will begin May 5th in South Korea with the KBO, so that also gives us in the USA hope that Major League Baseball can happen sooner rather than later. Does that mean baseball will start in May? Most likely not, but it’s not out of the question to think a June or July start is a possibility as well.
If the Royals play an 80-120 game season, that gives them a chance to compete in the AL Central. If the Royals get off to a fast start, or if other teams get off to slow starts, then it’s possible that the Royals could be the darling of the division and turn some heads. Maybe that doesn’t result in a playoff berth, but if the Royals can give the Central a run for its money, that could be a sign that the Royals rebuild is going better and perhaps faster than expected.
Of course, a lot of chips have to fall in the Royals favor. The pitching, especially the starting rotation, has to improve. The bullpen has to be more like it’s second-half self rather than it’s first-half one. And most importantly, the Royals need better production from their offense after the first five hitters (with the presumed 1-5 in the lineup being Whit, Mondi, Dozier, Soler, and Gordo).
Granted, Lopez isn’t the only example in this instance. Either Ryan O’Hearn or Ryan McBroom has to step up at first base. Maikel Franco has to prove that his struggles from the past couple of years in Philadelphia are behind him. Salvy has to prove that he can hit 20-plus again after a year layoff. The Royals need a lot of hitters in the lineup to step up actually, and even ones off the bench, especially Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, who need to prove they are worthy of roster spots as they hold no more Minor League options left.
That being said, Lopez is the key. Lopez will likely be the No. 9 hitter, and essentially he could fit the bill well in that position. He makes contact and he can get on base via walk as well, and if Lopez can be a dependable high-contact, frequent-on base option in the lineup, it will only make the Royals more competitive. Lopez can keep innings alive, and help spark big innings, especially with guys like Whit and Mondi coming right after him, who both bring intriguing combinations of power and speed at the top of the Royals lineup.
Fangraphs’ Depth Charts projects that Lopez will put up a slash of .268/.323/.364 with a wRC+ of 82 and a WAR of 1.3 in 126 games and 546 plate appearances. While those numbers are obviously an improvement from 2019, the Royals need Lopez to outperform his projections if they wish to surprise opponents in the AL Central in 2020. If Lopez can improve that slash to perhaps .288/.353/.394 and get his WAR over 2, that could make a difference in terms of improving this Royals lineup, especially at the bottom. Even something between that projection and my own “wishful” projection would be a big boost for the Royals as well as Lopez and his own future prospects as the Royals’ second baseman in 2020 and beyond.
Lopez may not command the attention that fellow bottom of the lineup hitters such as O’Hearn or Franco may get once the season starts. He doesn’t have the home run stroke, and he doesn’t have the wheels on the basepaths to attract the casual baseball fan. But Nicky Lopez is a grinder, and he has a solid glove that gives the Royals one of the more underrated up-the-middle duos in the Central with Mondesi. If he can hone his hitting just a little bit more at the Major League level, then not only will Lopez be a solid second-baseman that the Royals can depend on, but he could also evolve into a true fan favorite in Kansas City for years to come.
Because at the end of the day, Kansas City loves the underdog, and rallies behind him, especially when they buck the odds and succeed. Whit is the classic example of this, who went from a relatively unknown prospect to the Royals’ franchise player over his tenure.
Nicky has always been the underdog at every level and has proved the naysayers wrong as he advanced in the Royals farm system. Let’s hope that he can continue this trend during the shortened season of 2020.
Because if he does, then it won’t be surprising to see Nicky become Royals’ fans next favorite and lovable player both during and after the 2020 season.