The Royals view Nicky Lopez’s promotion to the majors as a move for the present and the future. While he’ll have to adjust like any rookie, he’s also joining the big league club because the organization’s brass believes he can make the Royals better today.
That decision will play out over the coming months, but the Royals surely aren’t approaching the start of Lopez’s career with kid gloves. Lopez went right into the starting lineup at second base and in the No. 2 spot in the batting order behind Whit Merrifield and in front of Adalberto Mondesi in what could regularly serve as the top of the lineup for the next few years.
“At the end of the day, I’m sick of losing,” Merrifield said. “We think he’s going to make us better. Whatever is going to make us better is what we’re excited for.”
Merrifield, who led the majors in hits and steals last season, will move to the outfield on a full-time basis to accommodate Lopez playing everyday at second base next to Mondesi, a potential future All-Star shortstop.
The Royals designated first baseman Frank Schwindel for assignment to make room for Lopez, who’ll wear uniform No. 1, on the 40-man roster.
Lopez, 24, was the Royals’ fifth-round selection in the 2016 draft after having started for three years at Creighton. He left Triple-A Omaha with a .353/.457/.500 slash line, six doubles and three home runs. He has 27 runs scored and nine stolen bases in 31 games. He also registered a walk rate of 14.5% compared to a strikeout rate of 3.6%.
Last season, Lopez split the year between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Omaha and hit .308/.382/.417. He led all Royals minor-leaguers in hits with 155 and won the organization’s George Brett Award as their top minor-league player.
Baseball America ranked Lopez as the Royals’ fifth-best prospect prior to this season.
“I think I’m ready,” Lopez said. “Only time will tell, but I think I’m definitely ready. I’ve prepared for this moment. All this, going through the minor leagues up until now, is to get to this moment. I always hear it’s one thing to make it, but (another) to stay. That’s what I plan to do, help this team win in anyway I can.”
Having known about Lopez’s pending promotion, Omaha manager Brian Poldberg gave him the day off on Monday.
Poldberg made up an excuse about the reason being that Lopez didn’t get a hit the previous day with pink bats in honor of Mother’s Day. Poldberg even told Lopez that his own mother was the one who asked he not play on Monday.
After the game, Poldberg had Lopez come into his office and call his mother so Poldberg could deliver the news of his promotion to them at the same time. Lopez said he and his mother both got emotional.
“My goal going into the season was to start in Triple-A and ultimately make it to the big leagues,” Lopez said. “My first goal was how cool it would be to play at TD Ameritrade against the Tigers on June 13.
“That was my first goal, but just to make it to the big leagues was my goal going into the season. I’m just glad it happened this soon. This is definitely a blessing for sure.”
Having starred for Creighton, the Royals-Tigers game in Omaha, Nebraska will be a return to his old stomping grounds. TD Ameritrade Park is Creighton’s home stadium and site of the College World Series.
Royals manager Ned Yost said he considered batting Lopez seventh, eighth or ninth in the lineup. Lopez profiles as a top of the order hitter and Yost decided to have him get used to that role now.
“He’s a high on-base, high-contact guy,” Yost said. “It just seems like it’s logical. Are you putting a lot on him? Yeah, but so is freaking having social media following everywhere he goes too. So what’s the difference between that and me hitting him second. I think he can handle it. I’ve always done it. When Ryan Braun came up (with Milwaukee) I put him right in the three hole.”
With the shuffling at the top of the order, that pushed first baseman and left-handed power threat Ryan O’Hearn into the seventh slot in the order.
The seventh spot in the order has posted a slash line of .207/.252/.333 with 14 runs scored, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The bottom three spots have not offered much consistent production this season. The No. 8 hitters have posted a slash line of .178/.245/.226 with 12 runs scored, and the No. 9 hitters have gone .234/.303/.314 with 19 runs scored.
During spring training, Yost said he envisioned Mondesi eventually settling into the third spot in the lineup. Batting Lopez second also puts Mondesi in what figured as his eventual landing spot.
“Whit has gotten on, Mondie has gotten on, but Mondie was at the top in RBIs, driving in runs,” Yost said. “Gordie is up there in RBIs, driving in runs. For me, the perfect scenario is Whit and Nicky scoring runs, Mondie and Gordie driving in runs.”