The future looks bright for Nicky Lopez and 2019 could be a big year for the Royals prospect (#6 per Royals Farm Report ), but it will take a while for it to all play out. Even though Nicky is essentially Major League ready there are a couple things that he must overcome, and they are things that he cannot control. The first one being that he does not have to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2019 season to protect him from being Rule 5 eligible. This option is simply a business option that the front office has to keep him stashed away in the system until the time is right to call him up.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this type of roster management. In the past, teams have held back players so that they could control the player longer. Under GM Dayton Moore the Royals have not actively practiced this type of roster management. They have even gone as far as to become the first team to give a player their Major League debut in a World Series (2015, Adalberto Mondesi) and before that, in 2014 they drafted Brandon Finnegan in the June draft and had him playing in MLB games in September. That same year, Finnegan would go on to be the first player to pitch in a College World Series game and Major League Baseball World Series game in the same year. Rest assured that Royals management are not going to be playing games with Nicky Lopez. However, if for some reason Nicky does not make it to the big-league club in 2019 the Royals are sure to protect him by adding him to the 40-man roster next off-season.
Secondly, there really is no place for him to play at this time. Defensively, Nicky has primarily played shortstop (255 games) or second base (57 games) all his professional career. These two positions are currently taken by Adalberto Mondesi and Whit Merrifield. We know that Merrifield can play virtually anywhere and Mondesi can play second base and has been looked at for the outfield too. That could open the door for Nicky to be the backup/utility infielder for the Royals, but Dayton Moore has said multiple times that they won’t call Nicky up to be a backup, so that option is off of the table.
So what about third base then? There has been some speculation that Nicky could be looked at for third base. The infield corners are two holes in the infield that the Royals need to plug before the 2019 season starts. Dozier probably has the inside track at third base, but he did not have a good season in 2018. Some of that could be that he was trying to learn a new position at first base. Dozier was also coming off of two injury plagued years where he did not get much playing time. O’Hearn was promoted to the Royals on July 31 and mercifully put us out of our Lucas Duda misery while performing at near MLB historic levels. After O’Hearn was called up Dozier started to play much better too. The chemistry between the two may pay big dividends in 2019 and beyond but both still need to prove themselves. Dozier needs to play at or above his August and September levels and O’Hearn had some glaring holes on defense and hitting left handed pitching at the MLB level. Another option is to move Merrifield to a more permanent role at third base or first base. During his professional career Whit has played 27 games at third and 34 games at first. Again, this is not ideal, and I would rather see Dozier and O’Hearn get their chance at those positions especially during a rebuild situation. The Royals have also signed Cheslor Cuthbert who was arbitration eligible and has no options left. Cuthbert played in just 30 games in 2018 hitting .194 with three home runs while fighting through back issues. Though he did good covering for Moustakas in 2016, he has been injured for most of the last two seasons while not performing very well the rest of the time. He will get some playing time during spring training and will be up against Dozier for the third base position.
That brings us back to what does the future hold for Nicky Lopez? In 2019 look for him to be invited to Royals Spring Training as a non-roster invitee and get a nice long look. He will make a great impression, but no matter how well he does he will start the season at AAA Omaha. He will outperform what he did in 2018 with Omaha, then in July or August, at the earliest, he will make his debut for the Royals. The future is indeed bright for him it’s just going to take a little bit longer to get here. In the end I believe that the key to seeing Nicky Lopez in Kansas City revolves around one thing: Whit Merrifield. The Royals will need to find a home for Whit, Adalberto and Nicky on the same field at the same time on a permanent basis or will have to move one of them to another team. I do not see any of them being traded off anytime soon which means Whit either blocks Nicky or moves to another position which includes the already crowded outfield.