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An infield logjam could result in a Nicky Lopez or Maikel Garcia trade

Nicky and Maikel are a wee bit out of place on this team

Apr 16, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Nicky Lopez (8) on the field during the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Kauffman Stadium.
Apr 16, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Nicky Lopez (8) on the field during the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Kauffman Stadium.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of things are going wrong for the 2023 Kansas City Royals. This is perhaps obvious, considering they are still on pace for more than 100 losses and are tracking behind last year’s team. Their pitching, in particular, is abysmal, and the lack of depth is noticeable.

But not everything is going wrong for the Royals—there have been some developments that are going well. The Royals’ infield is one. Perhaps the simplest way to show this is in the Wins Above Replacement put up by current infielders (that’s third base, shortstop, and second base) and, well, everybody else. Here’s the count, per Fangraphs’ version of WAR:

  • Infield WAR: 2.8 WAR
  • All Other Position Players: 0.2 WAR

That’s a big yikes, my friends. And if you expand our categorization of infield to include first base, the gap gets even bigger.

In addition to the current MLB depth across the infield, the Royals have a few key names at Triple-A Omaha who are ready for the show. Samad Taylor, a 24-year-old utility player who has played both third base and second base this year, is hitting .295/.393/.435. Nick Loftin, another 24-year-old utility player whose game is reminiscent of Whit Merrifield, is pairing an 11.5% strikeout rate with an ISO above .200.

Now, this is a good problem to have, and it is one the Royals have already identified and taken action on. They traded Adalberto Mondesi in the offseason, whose 109 big league games since 2020 established not much except that he couldn’t be relied on to be on the field.

With the development of Taylor and Loftin, Bobby Witt Jr.’s defensive rebound at shortstop, Maikel Garcia’s emergence as a viable big leaguer, Nicky Lopez’s continued competence, Michael Massey’s masterful May, and Matt Duffy as a fallback option, the Royals have seven candidates for three everyday spots. Recently, Matt Quatraro has chosen to give Massey playing time as the designated hitter—shifting Nick Pratto to the outfield and putting Vinnie Pasquantino at first base—rather than go with the better defensive alignment of Pratto at first and Vinnie at DH.

In essence, something here has to give. Sometimes these things work themselves out, with injuries and underperformance rearing their heads (just ask Mondesi and Hunter Dozier, respectfully). But they don’t always do so, and the Royals are in a bit of a unique position in the infield where they can trade from a place of strength to shore up a place of weakness, which, you guessed it, would probably be pitching.

There are a few routes forward here. Maikel Garcia is one of the top trade candidates due to multiple reasons: he’s young enough and talented enough that he’d get back a decent return—though nothing franchise-altering; don’t get your hopes too far up—and as Alex over at Royals Farm Report points out, playing Garcia anywhere other than shortstop is wasting a portion of his value.

The other obvious candidate here is Nicky Lopez, who has turned into quite the nice utility infielder. Lopez can play all three infield positions and play them well, and he has a .331 on base percentage in over 1100 plate appearances dating back to 2021 (a period of time in which he has also stolen 38 bases out of 42 opportunities). That’s pretty valuable, despite the weirdo sector of the Royals fanverse who don’t like Nicky for reasons that don’t make sense.

Notably, the non-Lopez options in the infield are all signed through 2027 at the earliest. Lopez, on the other hand, only has two more years after 2023 until he hits free agency. The Royals have traditionally not been a team to trade players with multiple years left on their deals. But things are different now with JJ Picollo in charge, who was the one to spearhead the Merrifield trade last year even though Merrifield had multiple years left.

If the Royals are going to be more “transactional,” they are going to need to trade from places of strength whenever they can. The infield is one such area this year. Again, to be perfectly clear, the Royals are probably not receiving a premium return. However, this is what good organizations do—they recognize when they can make incremental improvements and continue to do so to get better.