One of my favorite developments of the 2018 minor league season was the continued improvement of Royals middle infield prospect Nicky Lopez. Lopez entered the season as an obvious top 10 talent in the Royals system, but by the time the 2018 campaign had come to an end, Nicky Lopez emerged as the most sure-fire big leaguer that the Royals have. The general lack of power may limit Lopez’ ceiling as a big league hitter, but he’s got a legitimate shot to be a regular second baseman in KC for a long time, and a case to be the Royals top prospect.
After a bit of a rough showing in his first round at AA in 2017, Nicky Lopez returned to the Naturals to begin the 2018 season after an impressive Arizona Fall League showing last fall. Lopez lit the Texas League (AA) on fire to the tune of an .814 OPS in 73 games. After getting off to a sluggish start in April (.643 OPS in 22 games), Lopez posted OPS’ of .866 and .907 in May and June. He participated in the Texas League All-Star Game, and was promptly promoted to AAA Omaha.
Lopez got off to a roaring start in Omaha. He posted an OPS of .839 in his first month with the Storm Chasers (July), and hit as many home runs (2) in July as he did in 513 AA at-bats. He did come back to earth a bit to end the season. Lopez struck out a little more in AAA than he did in AA, which is expected. He also walked a bit more and hit for more power. Lopez probably wasn’t going to see a September call-up anyway in 2018, but his mortal .695 OPS in the month of August solidified that he’d have to wait until 2019.
Nicky Lopez’ 2018 campaign should be seen as nothing but a brilliant success. He destroyed the Texas League and immediately proved that he can handle the big boys at AAA as well. He flashed power, plate discipline, speed, leather, bat-to-ball skills, everything you want from your best prospect above A-ball. Lopez probably didn’t top many prospect lists heading into 2018, but his impressive campaign ought to have him at least in the mix for the Royals top prospect.
Lopez will almost certainly head back to AAA Omaha after Spring Training in 2019 to tidy up. I can’t imagine a scenario in which he doesn’t at least make his big league debut in 2019. The biggest issue for Lopez at the moment is a logjam in the Royals infield. Whit Merrifield was a top 25 position player in all of baseball in 2018 and the Royals have their SS of the future in Adalberto Mondesi. Unless Whit makes a more permanent move to the OF (where there is also a logjam), where does Lopez play? The answer seems to depend on two things:
- If Adalberto Mondesi stays healthy, he is going to get the reps at SS. He’s had some trouble staying healthy in the past, so an injury could free up some PA’s for Lopez at SS, but otherwise, he isn’t going to get reps here.
- Could the Royals still trade Whit Merrifield? Obviously they COULD, but comments from Royals management make it seem very unlikely that Merrifield won’t be a Royal. If Merrifield is traded mid-season, Lopez could immediately fill in at 2B. If he isn’t traded…Lopez may see a lot of time in AAA next year.
In any case, I’m expecting big things from Lopez next year, regardless of where he plays. He’s going to get an opportunity in Kansas City, but the question of WHEN he gets that opportunity may remain a mystery until well into the season.