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Nicky Lopez’s impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League

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Excelled in what many consider to be the final step before the majors.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-All Star Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Considered by many the final step for prospects before the reach the majors, the Arizona Fall League showcases some of the big name prospects like Ronald Acuna, Victor Robles, and Kyle Tucker. But it also show cases the other type of prospects. The guys that weren’t necessarily on the radars of many, like Nicky Lopez

If you pay attention to Royals prospects, Nicky Lopez is by no means a new name to you. Rated highly in the Royals organization by many, Lopez flew up the prospect lists after a very successful stint in Wilmington to start the year, posting a 125 wRC+ in 70 games. Perhaps what was most impressive was the 36 walks to 23 strikeouts, which really speaks to the approach of Lopez.

Lopez did have a rough stint in AA to finish off the year, hitting for a lesser 72 wRC+(highlighted by a rough August in which he hit .237/290/.247). He still did feature his above-average plate discipline, speed, and glove during this time though.

Even after a rough stretch in Northwest Arkansas, Lopez was still very deserving of an Arizona Fall League roster spot. And like the goal for many prospects heading to the AFL, Lopez was going to make mechanical adjustments and work on his approach at the plate, as pointed out at MiLB.com.

The improvement can't simply be chalked up to the fact that anything can happen in a small sample, however. Lopez said he worked early in the Fall League with Surprise hitting coach Jobel Jimenez on making adjustments that would allow him to become a better leadoff hitter. The first involved his stance.

And making changes to the bat he uses.

The other was to use a bigger bat, both in length and weight. Lopez had traditionally used a 33-inch, 30-ounce or even a 32 1/2-inch, 29 1/2-ounce bat before he arrived in the Fall League. Now he's up to a 33 1/2-inch, 31 1/2-ounce stick, and though the 5-foot-11, 175-pound infielder isn't known for his strength, he's found no issues handling the change. In fact, it's been quite the opposite.

"The heavier bat, I mean it's more mass multiplied by velocity, so there's more momentum," Lopez said. "I feel like I'm getting more behind the ball, and you can see it really jumps -- it's coming off harder on contact, which is great."

Even though it is in a very small sample size (88 plate appearances), the results have been fine for Lopez. As he mentioned above, the ball is coming off his bat harder. In the Fall League, he has been hitting line drives at a very high rate of 28.6%, compared to his 16.8% rate at Northwest Arkansas. And not to mention, he’s even hit two home runs, something he never did in 59 AA games.

The better contact has also led to some pretty impressive number. Here is where Lopez ranks among Arizona Fall League hitters.

  • AVG- 2nd (.383)
  • OBP- 4th (.433)
  • SLG- 5th (.568)

So what does this mean? Well, heading into the 2018 season, the Royals yet again will have a very interesting roster situation relating to the middle of the infield. It starts with current free agent Alcides Escobar and whether he will back or not (hopefully the latter). With the development of Lopez and Raul Mondesi and breakout of Whit Merrifield, the Royals shouldn’t be looking to sign an aging 62 wRC+ hitter.

Let’s say they don’t re-sign Escobar. Assuming Merrifield has a spot in the lineup, whether at second base or somewhere else, we could have an underrated position battle in Spring Training, mainly between Lopez and Mondesi. Heading into Surprise though, Mondesi would seem to be the favorite for an Opening Day spot, simply based off his ceiling as a player. This would likely send Lopez to Omaha.

And just for fun, let’s see what the projections say (all numbers from Steamer, prorated to 600 plate appearances).

  • Raul Mondesi: .238/.281/.384, 72 wRC+, 0.6 WAR
  • Alcides Escobar: .250/.285/.345, 64 wRC+, 0.2 WAR
  • Nicky Lopez: .259/.309/.351, 75 wRC+, 0.7 WAR
  • Ramon Torres: .257/.296/.346, 69 wRC+, 0.0 WAR

In short, these fall league numbers could mean something significant, or they could mean nothing at all. We’ve seen players that have excelled in the Arizona Fall League that quickly went on to do great things in the majors (Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Cody Bellinger) and others that went silent (J.C. Linares, Henry Urrutia, Andrew Susac, Adam Engel). Whatever the outcome is for Nicky Lopez, these numbers are sure encouraging for a farm system lacking many positives.