With a championship-contending season slipping away from the Royals, it seems like the future may be more important to most Royals fans. So let’s take a look at some of the prospects in the Royals system, particularly those that may be under-the-radar. The system has been ranked low in baseball by many observers, but players like Whit Merrifield and Jorge Bonifacio are showing that there may be a few overlooked players that can come up and contribute for the Royals in the near future.
Shortstop Nicky Lopez is another such player that won’t make any Top 100 prospect lists but could have a future playing at Kauffman Stadium some day. Originally from Naperville, Illinois, Lopez began his collegiate career at Creighton University in Omaha as a third baseman. He eventually shifted to shortstop and after he recovered from a torn meniscus in his right knee, he had a fine collegiate career for the Blue Jays, hitting .306/.417/.444 his junior season, earning second-team All-Big East honors. The Royals selected him in the fifth round, making him the highest Creighton player selected in the draft in 17 years. Royals Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo raved about the tools Lopez could bring to the table.
"He can run. He swings the bat well. He can really play defense. He’s a good baserunner. He’s an above-average runner to the point he’ll be able to . . . steal a base in a tough situation."
The left-handed hitting Lopez was assigned to Rookie ball in Burlington in the Appalachian League, and hit .282/.393/.429 with six home runs in 62 games. Lopez showed good speed, swiping 24 bags in 28 attempts. He has been described as having a strong arm and soft hands at shortstop, and he committed just five errors in his rookie campaign.
Coaches and scouts also praise Lopez for being a high energy, high motor player. He has been called a "gamer" who loves being on the field and can serve as an example to others. He exhibits just the sort of character qualities the Royals seem to love, as demonstrated by this praise from Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg.
"You can't take your eyes off him, because he's filled with energy. He can be a coaches' dream when he walks out on the field, because he's not going to have to tell him anything. Just tell him what time the bus leaves and he'll be ready to play."
What stands out the most for Lopez is his walk-to-strikeout ratio. The Royals have long been criticized for emphasizing raw tools and ignoring players that exhibit good plate discipline. Lopez runs contrary to that approach, showing outstanding pitch recognition. In Burlington, as he did at Creighton, he drew significantly more walks than strikeouts, with a walk rate of 12.4% compared to a 10.6% strikeout rate. At Wilmington, he has continued drawing walks, but not by sacrificing strikeouts. He has been the toughest hitter in all of affiliated minor league baseball to strike out.
Lowest single-season strikeout rate, Royals minor leagues, 2007-present
Lopez understands his job is to work counts and get on base for his teammates to drive him in.
"I just try to get on, let my two, three, four hitters drive me in. I feel like that’s the best way to help my team win... Just work the counts, get the pitch counts up, any way to get on base."
Our Shaun Newkirk ranked him as the #24 prospect in the system before this season, writing:
Lopez’s pro debut may be a mirage offensively - his frame is small and his swing plane is low - but defensively he’s got the chops to stick at shortstop. He’s quick overall and profiles as a utility infielder.
Lopez impressed Royals brass so much they skipped him past low A Lexington and had him begin this season in High A Wilmington, a difficult hitting environment. Thus far, Lopez has shown his hitting was no mirage. In his first 45 games for the Blue Rocks, Lopez is sixth in the Carolina League in batting average at .315, and his .394 on-base percentage is seventh in the league. He has also shown some pop with two home runs and six triples. He was red-hot in May, getting on base in all but one game, hitting .327 for the month. His play has earned rave reviews from Wilmington manager Jamie Quirk.
"The first thing that stuck out to me is I could tell he loves the game. He comes to the park every day, you can tell he’s glad to be there, wants to play, wants to compete, It’s not a grind. It will be at times, but that’s the thing that stuck out most to me was the enjoyment he has being on the baseball field, because if you don’t have that you’re in the wrong sport because it’s day in and day out for seven months.’’
Quirk's comments on Nicky Lopez (via BR press release): "you can put him in the Major Leagues right now, he's playing that good."— Jen Nevius (@JenNev8) May 7, 2017
Lopez is a bit undersized - he is listed at 5’11’’, but everyone seems to think his smaller stature may put a ceiling on his hitting ability. Still, he has flashed decent power for a middle infielder, and his speed and high-contact ability could generate enough offense, combined with a solid defensive tools, to make him a starting shortstop at the Major League level. Lopez just turned 22, and is younger than the average player in the Carolina League. He could be a fast riser who outperforms his physical skills and exemplifies the kind of grit Royals coaches will love.