It’s been a rough Opening homestand for the Royals, as they have dropped the first two games of their Opening series at Kauffman to the rival Chicago White Sox, and are hoping to at least avoid the sweep on Sunday afternoon. At 3-6, it seems likely that the Royals will have a losing season, it’s just a matter of how bad it will be, and whether or not it will be (or at least feel like) an improvement from the past two seasons in which they lost a 100-plus games. But honestly, that’s okay. Most realistic Royals fans knew that despite all the rhetoric from the Royals organization, that this was going to be a “rebuilding” season in which player development and identification of players to build around for the future was going to be more important than necessarily winning games. That is especially true in a pandemic-stricken season in which the likelihood of a full-season being played seems less and less likely by the day, due to outbreaks affecting teams like the Phillies, Marlins, Brewers and even Kansas City’s eastern-neighbors, the Cardinals.
One of the players entering 2020 with high expectations is middle infielder Nicky Lopez, a former 5th round draft pick out of Creighton University in Omaha. Lopez made his debut a year ago and pretty much earned a reputation as a Chris Getz 2.0 both in the minors and majors: he made a lot of contact, he walked a decent amount, he didn’t strike out a whole lot, and he flashed an above-average glove up the middle. That was especially evident in his stat line with the Royals in 2019: in 103 games and 402 plate appearances, he posted a .240 batting average, .601 OPS, and a WAR of -0.2. As expected, Lopez didn’t provide much pop at the plate (his power tool always rated pretty sub-par in the minors), as he not only hit just two home runs (with one occurring at TD Ameritrade Field in Omaha), but he only posted an ISO of .084, as well as a barrel rate and hard hit percentage that ranked in the bottom 2 percent of the league in 2019.
However, Lopez made a good impression on the Royals with a solid month of play in September while filling in mostly at shortstop for an injured Adalberto Mondesi. In 14 games in September, he posted a .289 average and .778 OPS over 48 plate appearances. Furthermore, he struck out only three times and walked three times, which stood in line with the kind of plate discipline and contact rates Lopez followers were used to seeing from him during his time in the minors, especially in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. And thus, there was a feeling among Royals fans that with the momentum of this solid finish to 2019, Lopez could become an everyday infielder for the Royals in 2020 and beyond.
Lopez did all the right things this off-season, as he not only gained weight and strength, but he seemed to be a big part of the Royals’ roster planning and marketing campaign as well. He was a main item at FanFest. The Royals acquired Maikel Franco to play third and re-signed Alex Gordon, which in turn seemed to move Whit Merrifield to center and Hunter Dozier to right in order to make sure Lopez would be starting at second. While Lopez’s numbers were a bit shaky and had some room to grow, it didn’t seem out of the question to think that the Royals were planning to make Lopez the full-time second-baseman in 2020.
And on Opening Day that seemed to be the case, as Lopez not only started at second base in Cleveland in Game 1, but Game 2 as well. However, since then, the Royals have shuffled Lopez in and out of the lineup. He didn’t start for three straight games after the second game in Cleveland; then started a game where he went 0-for-4 against the Tigers; then he sat out the finale in Detroit; and then he started the next two games against the White Sox, only to go 1-for-5 and get knocked out of Saturday’s game after being cleated at second while turning a double play.
As of now, Lopez is posting a .125 batting average with a .347 OPS in 18 plate appearances in 2020. That’s not exactly the start Matheny nor Royals fans were expecting after a solid Spring Training and finish to 2019. To make matters worse, it seems hard to justify playing time to Lopez when Whit continues to mash, as he is posting a .324 batting average and 1.024 OPS in 40 plate appearances, and other outfielders are offering more offensive and defensive promise. Brett Phillips is surprising with an .875 OPS in 16 plate appearances, and though his metrics aren’t good, nobody (with the exception of perhaps Jorge Soler) is hitting the ball as hard as Franchy Cordero, as evidenced in the Tweet below:
Considering that Cordero offers more upside, and Phillips offers better defense, it seems silly to keep trotting Whit to the outfield, when those two provide more value at the plate than Lopez when he’s playing second. With Dozier set to come back soon from the IL, it will only make things more complicated for Matheny and the Royals, as there will be one less OF position available for Whit-Cordero-Phillips and even Starling to rotate through.
And hence, it’s no surprise that the Royals are facing such a roster conundrum with Lopez right now.
Clint Scoles of Royals Academy (if you haven’t subscribed on Patreon, do it already) said this about the situation with Lopez in one of his latest posts:
It’s just five games into the season, but Lopez has snagged only two starts with three other late-game entries and was pinch-hit for during one of the starts. No one will tell you that Lopez is the team’s best option at second base with an All-Star like Whit Merrifield roaming around, but he is a player that needs more at-bats to gather information…As for Whit, this is the problem I had with Alex coming back, Whit at his age is not built for a full season in centerfield, and the Royals lose defensive improvement from Brett Phillips out there. His natural move was to one of the corners with leftfield being the likely landing spot with an average arm.“The Decisions to Contend” by Clint Scoles; Royals Academy
At this point, after watching Lopez fail to come through with the bases loaded twice last evening, I felt it was maybe time to give Whit the full-time position at second base. While Whit can handle playing multiple positions, it seems that the shuffling of him at so many this early in the year has had an effect on his defense. After replacing Nicky due to injury on Saturday night, Whit made a blunder defensively on a groundball, one of four Royals errors. While Lopez is probably the better glove at second than Whit, Whit is the Royals’ best hitter right now, and the upside of having Cordero and Phillips in center both offensively and defensively outweighs Lopez in second and Whit in center. And if the Royals want to see Whit cut down on those errors, he needs to see extended time in one position so he can get comfortable. That seemed to be one of the reasons why they named Whit the starting center fielder so early: to ensure that he got enough work in Spring Training at the position so he could feel entrenched and fully embrace one position. Just nine games into the season, that plan has suddenly been jettisoned, and it’s not surprising that the Royals’ defense has suffered because of it.
Of course, where does that leave Lopez? At this point, it’s hard to say, but it’s likely that Lopez just may not be an everyday infielder at the Major League level. Despite gaining weight, there haven’t been many gains for Lopez at the plate. His hard hit percentage is only 8.3 percent, he’s topping more balls this year (58.3 percent to 52.4 percent in 2019), and his exit velocity is also nearly 2 mph slower than 2019 as well. To make matters worse, his normally stellar plate discipline has also suffered early in 2020: his whiff rate is up (19.4 to 15.2 percent last year), he’s making less contact on balls when he chases out of the zone (63.6 percent to 75.7 percent), and when he does see balls that he can drive (i.e. “meatballs”), he is not taking advantage (his meatball swing percentage is only 40 percent in comparison to 74.1 percent in 2019). Offensively, it’s hard to justify regular playing time to Lopez, and even though it’s a small sample, there aren’t a 162 games to let him work through things like a season ago. And that has been evident by Matheny shuffling him in and out of the lineup.
In many ways, Lopez probably is feeling the pressure and it has been getting to him. His swing looks a little slower from last year. He’s laying off pitches he normally would swing at. After all, Lopez went through his struggles early on in 2019 as well (he posted a .575 OPS in the first half of 2019), which is expected for a rookie who wasn’t all that highly-heralded to begin with (or at least by those outside the Royals system). It’s possible that once a couple of weeks pass, Lopez will hit a groove, and at the very least he can be his September 2019 self, or some kind of variant.
That being said, it’s tough to be patient with Lopez considering the Royals’ circumstances, especially with Whit. Whit probably would be more valuable defensively as the Royals’ everyday starting second baseman, his original position. And with Bobby Witt, Jr. waiting in the wings, it may make more sense for Lopez to start accepting a utility role, as it could be possible that Witt may be ready to take a starting infield position in the second half of 2021 or 2022. Lopez still deserves to be on this roster, and he offers way more upside than Erick Mejia, whom I felt was way over-hyped due to inflated Spring Training and Summer Camp numbers. And perhaps finding a utility role could better suit and ease the pressure off of Lopez, which could in turn produce better results at the plate. So much of baseball is mental, and it’s obvious that mental part of the game is taking its toll on Lopez early on in 2020. In order to help this mental part, he probably needs a clarification of his role, and that clarification from Matheny should be this: he’ll help the Royals more as a utility player off the bench than as a regular starting second baseman.
While that may be tough to stomach, at least that would let Lopez know where he stands, which in turn could help motivate and let him take time to figure out what he could do to turn things around this year.
It will be interesting to see what Matheny and even GM Dayton Moore will do with Lopez going forward this year. With Lopez suffering a minor injury, Whit will get the start at second today, and could for a couple of more games. However, when Lopez is healthy and ready to go, will Matheny bring him back to the starting lineup? Or will he give a utility role which will ease pressure but give him less opportunities to prove himself at the Major League level?
It is difficult to stomach this as a Royals fan because Lopez is such a good guy and endears himself well to Royals fans here in Kansas City as well as in Omaha, where he enthralled Storm Chasers fans on the field. But at the end of the day, the Royals have to do what’s best for their club, and as of now, Whit at second over Lopez is what will help this lineup more for the time being.
But as we know, baseball changes all the time, with opportunities sprouting when players least expect it. After all…who predicted that Singer AND Bubic would make their Major League debuts so early in 2020 when we started Spring Training in 2020? If Lopez gets an opportunity due to injury or something else, let’s hope he can recover and show the kind of hitter that he proved he could be at the end of 2019, not just for his sake, the Royals’ as well.