The Royals are stumbling towards another season in the cellar, but all is not lost when it comes to the long-term future of this franchise. The Royals are getting some impressive performances from players who figure to be here awhile like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier, and the farm system is showing signs of life after being dormant for many years. One of the shining examples in the organization is Nicky Lopez, a young infielder playing for Omaha, the same town where he played collegiately at Creighton. Lopez has quickly become a fan favorite with his attitude, his high-contact approach, and his ability to do a bit of everything well on a baseball diamond.
With first place already out of reach, fans want to see the next generation of Royals players, and many are already calling for Lopez to be in the big leagues. How long will they have to wait?
Is he ready?
The first question has to be whether Nicky Lopez is ready for a big league promotion. Fan sentiment or the possibility of squeezing out another win or two should be secondary to what is best for Nicky’s long-term development.
But right now, Nicky is raking in AAA. He has caught on fire recently, and is hitting .346/.436/.494 over his first 21 games. He had a two-homer game two weeks ago and nearly hit for the cycle the next night. He has a 3.2 percent strikeout rate, the lowest among all affiliated minor league players.
And while that is a small sample size, remember he came up and joined the Storm Chasers last summer. He has now spent 78 games at the AAA level and is hitting .296/.383/.438, numbers that are pretty impressive for a middle infielder. Now AAA success doesn’t necessarily translate to Major League success. But it may indicate he is close to proving all he can at AAA and is ready for a shot against big league pitching.
How long do the Royals typically keep guys in AAA?
In the past, the Royals have usually had their top prospects spend very little time in AAA, even bypassing the level altogether. The AAA-level has been seen as more a repository for veteran players on stand-by to be an understudy in the big leagues than a training ground for future stars. Many prominent Royals prospects spent little time in AAA before making their Major League debut, with Alex Gordon skipping the level entirely.
Games at the Triple-A level for prominent Royals prospects
The Royals may be more patient with prospects now, and Lopez doesn’t necessarily have the pedigree that Hosmer or Butler had as a minor leaguer. But if the Royals still see AAA as a land of journeymen pitchers rather than top pitching prospects, it may be time to challenge Lopez with Major League pitching. Service time may be a factor, although the Royals have typically not played games with service time. Even so, the Super-Two arbirtration deadline is fast approaching (usually around mid-May), and after that there should be no more service time issues.
How would the Royals find room for him?
This may be the biggest obstacle to getting Lopez to the big leagues. The 40-man roster is one obstacle. Lopez is currently not on it, and it is currently full, meaning the Royals will have to make room for him somehow. However there are a few pitchers the Royals could probably risk losing to get Lopez on the 40-man.
As for the active roster, whether Lopez can be on the big league team probably depends on how long the Royals think they can keep Terrance Gore on the roster. Or Lucas Duda, for that matter, once he returns from his back injury. A healthy Hunter Dozier could also open up a spot, as Kelvin Gutierrez won’t be needed at the big league level anymore. Regardless, the Royals could find a spot if they really wanted to.
But where would Lopez play on the field? The Royals would not, and should not, call Lopez up to be a reserve player, sitting the bench 5-6 times a week. He should get a chance to play on a regular basis, which will be difficult with Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second on a daily basis. However Merrifield could move to right field on a more regular basis, as he has done earlier in this season when Chris Owings was getting the bulk of the playing time at second. Moving Merrifield to right, Jorge Soler to DH, and benching Chris Owings could get Lopez into the lineup on a regular basis.
When will it happen? It’s hard to say. Clint Scoles, who follows Royals prospects as well as anyone, thinks it is time to see what Lopez can do against big leaguers, arguing that playing Lopez and benching Owings would be a “no lose situation for the staff, giving the young player a regular everyday job to get the at-bats he needs and deserves while also giving the veteran they had hoped would become a regular, enough platoon at-bats to make things worthwhile in their minds.”
Lopez seems to embody many of the traits the Royals love in a player - he’s a gamer, he makes contact, he runs well, and is a solid defender at a premium position. Their patience in not rushing him should be applauded, as it would better to call him up a bit too late rather than a bit too early.
But eventually Lopez deserves to get a shot at the big leagues. If the Royals can find room to get Chris Owings in the lineup on a regular basis, they can find a way to give his at-bats to Nicky Lopez. The time to do that may not necessarily be right this moment, but that moment is fast approaching.
When will Nicky Lopez make his Major League debut?
This poll is closed
By Memorial Day
By the All-Star break
Before September callups
As a September callup