This afternoon, the Royals announced an expected roster move that has been on Royals fans’ minds the past couple of weeks:
With no Minor League options remaining, as well as the lack of a rotation or bullpen spot available currently, Lopez and his days with the Royals seemed numbered even before he was placed on the Bereavement List. Add that with a lackluster lone appearance in 2020, and a subpar year in 2019 where he split time in the Royals rotation and bullpen, and it just did not make sense for the Royals to keep Lopez for much longer in 2020. He struggled to succeed as a starter, and he failed to do much either in any kind of relief role either. Thus, it’s a shame that a key cog from the Mike Moustakas deal in 2018 failed to produce much when he came over from Milwaukee.
That being said, while this deal obviously was expected on the Royals’ end and gives the roster more flexibility going forward, it also could be a benefit to Lopez, who struggled to find much fanfare in Kansas City after an inconsistent tenure since arriving from the Brewers in 2018. It is unlikely Lopez will come back to KC (he most likely will be claimed by another team or will not accept an assignment to the “alternate site” in KCK). And thus, for Lopez, a fresh start and a new organization could be the rejuvenation he needs to salvage a once promising MLB career.
A second-round pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2011 MLB Draft, the Puerto Rican pitcher has accumulated 190 innings and has made 27 starts at the Major League level. He has spent parts of three seasons with the Brewers as well as parts of three seasons with the Royals, with most of his work occurring in Kansas City. With the Royals, he pitched 158.1 innings, and made 27 starts to go along with 60 total appearances. Unfortunately, Lopez failed to do much in that 158.1 inning sample in KC, as he not only posted a 6.42 ERA and 1.48 WHIP, but he also accumulated a -1.7 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Thus, Lopez was more of a liability on the mound than an asset during his time in Kansas City.
The challenging dilemma with Lopez is that he showed potential, and he demonstrated some promising metrics that gave Royals fans hope that he could somehow put it together and be at least an average-to-decent pitcher at the Major League level. Despite a 6.33 ERA and 5.55 FIP in 123.2 IP last year, he actually posted the fifth best K/BB ratio of Royals starting pitchers (2.29), according to Fangraphs. Lopez also showed some aptitude with curve ball, as it was not only his most thrown pitch in 2019 (he threw it 32.2 percent of the time, according to Statcast data), but it was also his most effective. His curve produced a whiff rate of 32.8 percent and a put away percentage of 23.7 percent, second only to his slider (his slider produced a whiff rate of 33.8 percent and a put away percentage of 28.6 percent, but he only threw it 6.1 percent of the time). And thus, with a solid breaking repertoire and decent fastball velocity (he averaged 94.3 MPH on his four seamer), some Royals fans hoped that limited work in relief would help make Lopez more effective.
Unfortunately, that failed to be the case in 2020, as he struggled in his only appearance against the Cleveland Indians during Opening Weekend, giving up three hits and two runs in only 0.2 innings of work. Lopez in relief this year continued to show the same flaws as a starter: lack of command and an inability to challenge hitters. And thus, with the acquisition of veteran relievers such as Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal, as well as the improvement of Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer, it made sense that the Royals parted ways with the 27-year-old, knowing that he just didn’t fit anywhere on the Royals pitching staff.
Sure, Lopez is relatively young. And yes, Lopez’s breaking stuff offers potential. But the Royals had already given nearly 160 innings of work to Lopez over his limited tenure in Kansas City. That’s a lot of time and a lot of chances, and the Royals figured (rightfully so) that it would be better off to giving innings to younger pitchers who are more unknown and unproven, such as Staumont, Zimmer, and rookie Tyler Zuber.
Royals Academy blogger Clint Scoles posted this on Twitter shortly after Lopez was released:
The pitcher? None other than Luis Mendoza, who pitched for the Royals from 2010-2013. In many ways, the Mendoza-comparison makes a lot of sense: both had some good starts and flashed potential during their limited time in Kansas City, but ultimately they could never put it together during their tenures as Royals pitchers.
Unfortunately, Mendoza never pitched again in Major League Baseball after he was released by the Royals, not necessarily a good sign for Lopez and his future.
That being said, Lopez may not be a lost cause at the Major League level. He improved his control in Kansas City from his Brewers days, as his BB/K ratio in Milwaukee was 1.32 in 31.2 IP, and he improved that to 2.59 with the Royals over a much larger inning sample. And thus, the potential is there. He just needs to limit the hard hits and the long balls, which he struggled immensely with, as evidenced by his 40.6 percent hard hit rate and 20.6 HR/FB rate last season. That will only be improved by Lopez improving his command and doing a better job of keeping the ball down in the strike zone.
Because when he does, he produces performances like this:
Lopez never quite lived up to his potential in Kansas City, though to be fair, he was seen as a pretty flawed prospect when he arrived to the Royals organization in 2018 (he had been pretty up and down in the Brewers system). And honestly, if it wasn’t for that near perfect game in 2018 against the Twins, I wonder how long Lopez would have lasted in Kansas City. It’s possible that if that near-magical evening didn’t happen in Minneapolis, Lopez probably wouldn’t have made it through the 2019 season, let alone begin the year in Kansas City in 2020.
It will be interesting to see if another team will recognize Lopez’s potential and give him a shot in 2020, whether its in the rotation or the pen. It’s possible that the weight of failed expectations from Royals fans doomed his final days as a Royal. He not only struggled with his command on the mound in Spring Training, Summer Camp and one regular season appearance, but he also looked stressed as well, not exactly a promising demeanor for a guy trying to salvage his professional career.
In many ways, Lopez resembles a right-handed Jonathan Sanchez, who flashed potential and good stretches of pitching, but ultimately couldn’t put together anything substantial due to control and command struggles (he did NOT have the best tenure in Kansas City, much like Lopez). I wonder if another team will see that kind of potential and be able to tap Lopez and his inner-Sanchez, much like the Giants did with the actual Sanchez during his early career in San Francisco.
If Lopez can even produce a modicum of the career Sanchez had (especially during his Giants days), I am sure Lopez, and the team that takes a chance on him, will be thankful.
Because a Sanchez outlook for Lopez would certainly be better than a Mendoza one as Lopez begins his post-Royals pitching career.