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The handling of Nicky Lopez may give us a hint of the Royals’ internal timeline

The Royals heir-apparent to second base seems likely to start the season in Omaha, but when can we expect a big league debut?

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-All Star Game
Nov 4, 2017; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals infielder Nicky Lopez plays for the Surprise Saguaros during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to start this article with something of a disclaimer. It is November. Baseball is boring this time of year. I am just about out of ideas when it comes to writing about the Royals. This may be a stretch, but it is something that I firmly believe and want to write about, so read with a grain of salt.

I firmly believe that the Royals are going to give us a sneak peak into their internal timeline with how they handle Nicky Lopez next season. Jeffrey Flanagan of wrote a piece recently discussing the Royals search for a backup middle infielder. In the article, Royals GM Dayton Moore expresses his desire to be patient with Lopez and that Lopez will absolutely not be promoted to the big leagues just to be a backup. That is the obvious (and correct) move.

Dayton then goes on to explain that Nicky Lopez doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until next fall. This sounds a lot to me like the Royals don’t plan on promoting Nicky Lopez to the big leagues any time soon. It sounds to me like they are going to let Lopez get a season’s worth of at-bats at the AAA level and are in no rush to start his service clock in 2019. Whit Merrifield appears to be headed back to Kansas City to man second base for the 2019 campaign, and with Adalberto Mondesi at SS, there’s just not room for Lopez in Kansas City.

But the Royals could very easily make room. Whit Merrifield is most certainly a hotly sought-after commodity after posting over five wins (WAR) in 2018, and there are plenty of teams that could use his bat and speed in their lineups. Moving Whit Merrifield to make room for Nicky Lopez would be easy, I just don’t think the Royals want to do that.

By not trading Whit Merrifield, or at least moving him to third base, the Royals are creating a long-term logjam at second base that will prevent Nicky Lopez from reaching the big leagues. The outfield is pretty full too, by the way, with the like of Alex Gordon, Brett Phillips, Jorge Soler, Jorge Bonifacio, and Brian Goodwin all needing major league at-bats moving forward. Elier Hernandez, Donnie Dewees Jr., and Khalil Lee aren’t far away either.

So what do you do? Keep Nicky Lopez in the minor leagues forever? Teach someone how to play third base? Trade Whit? If you ask me (no one asked me) the decision that the Royals make in their handling of Nicky Lopez will tell you everything you need to know about when the Royals think they will be competitive again. Let’s go through each feasible scenario and I’ll explain my reasoning.

1.) The Royals trade Whit Merrifield and promote Nicky Lopez to be the every day second baseman in Kansas City.

This move could go a little bit both ways. By trading Whit Merrifield, the Royals might be signaling that they don’t think they can compete over the next couple of seasons. With that being said, promoting Nicky Lopez to the big leagues and letting him get big league at-bats in 2019 might signify that the Royals think they’re close. They may want Lopez to go ahead and get some big league experience, that way he’s something of a veteran when the core of younger guys make their way to KC. Given that this is a move that could go both ways, we’ll give it an empty verdict.

2.) The Royals keep Whit Merrifield for all of 2019 and don’t call up Nicky Lopez until September.

I may have an aneurysm if I have to wait until September to get a look at Lopez in Kansas City. Unfortunately, I would not be at all surprised if this is the case. However, if the Royals choose to keep Lopez in Omaha for 2019, that would be a huge sign to me that the Royals don’t expect to be competing for the playoffs in 2021, which would be great news. Some comments made by Dayton Moore and other members of the Royals front office had me legitimately concerned that they thought they could be playoff ready (or close to it) again by 2021. As much as I would love to see Nicky Lopez in Kansas City early in 2019, by keeping him in Omaha, where he’s not getting any big league experience, the Royals would be telling me they have a more realistic internal timeline for their next competitive window.

3.) The Royals move Whit Merrifield to third base, or the outfield, and promote Nicky Lopez to play second base in the same lineup.

Speaking of aneurysms...this is a move that would scare me. Alex Gordon is on the last year of his contract and it wouldn’t totally surprise me to see the Royals give Whit a long-term look in LF/CF. In addition, the Royals don’t appear to have a third baseman of the future near KC yet and Whit seems athletic enough to try him out over there too. This move would be a huge signal to me that the Royals think they’re close to competing. That they believe there is a real scenario where Whit Merrifield, Nicky Lopez and company are all in the same lineup competing for a playoff spot. The Royals front office is, obviously, much smarter and more in touch with their own organization than I am, but this is a move that would worry me for their future. I can’t currently see a situation in which the Royals would be competitive again while Whit Merrifield is still this valuable to the organization.

So there ya go. I have no idea what the Royals internal plans are for Nicky Lopez, and it’s hard to tell when they think they will actually be competitive again. Luckily, I also think it’s likely that the Royals handling of Nicky Lopez in 2019 will give us more insight to those plans than we may think. A promotion could mean they think they’re close, while keeping him in Omaha may mean that they’ve got a more long-term outlook on things. I certainly don’t know, but it will be fun to watch and find out.