When the Royals were contenders, they had a team focused on making contact and putting the ball in play. When they selected Nicky Lopez out of Creighton in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, they had a hitter that fit that profile perfectly. The Chicagoland native struck out just 7.5 percent of the time in college, while bringing speed and defense to the infield.
Lopez worked his way through the farm system with one of the best walk rates in the organization, and he made his MLB debut in 2019. The bat was slow to come around in his first two seasons, but he impressed with his defense and was a finalist for a Gold Glove at second base. His bat finally had a breakthrough in 2021, as the left-handed hitter put up a line of .300/.365/.378 with 22 steals in 23 tries. He moved over to shortstop that year, leading the position in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Above Average, and was worth 4.4 WAR, according to Baseball Reference.
The offensive performance turned out to be a one-year blip, however, as his bat regressed in 2022. He hit just .227/.281/.273 in 480 plate appearances, splitting time between second and short. With young players like Bobby Witt Jr., Michael Massey, and Maikel Garcia filling the infield this year, Lopez has been asked to take more of a backup utility role. He’s hitting just .219/.342/.313 but has the highest walk rate of his career and continues to play excellent defense. He’s also one of the more senior players now - only two hitters on the team with at least 100 plate appearances are older than him - and he has showed some leadership to the younger players.
But with the influx of young infielders, there appears to be less of a need to keep Lopez on the roster. Garcia and Witt can provide depth at shortstop, with the recently-called-up Samad Taylor able to fill a utility role. Former first round pick Nick Loftin has played well in Triple-A Omaha and could also fill a similar role once he is healthy. Lopez also earns $3.7 million, and will likely get $4-5 million next year through arbitration. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s money the Royals probably don’t want to pay a reserve player, particularly with so many other needs.
So it may make sense for the Royals to shop their infielder for a younger player that fill a need. Lopez could still be very attractive for contenders looking to shore up their infield defense. The Phillies made such a move last year when they acquired infielder Edmundo Sosa from the Cardinals for pitcher JoJo Romero. Sosa had been a bit erratic with the bat, but a stellar defender at short, a position Philly badly needed an upgrade at defense. In exchange, the Cardinals got Romero, an MLB-ready pitcher whose velocity increased with a move to the pen. Romero has had decent results as he has been shuttled between the minors and big leagues, but gives the Cardinals another interesting arm they can try to get improved performance from.
That’s what the Royals can look to get for Lopez - an interesting arm that hasn’t had results on a team that can’t afford to be patient. What teams could be interested in Lopez? The White Sox reportedly inquired about his availability last winter, and even though they are out of contention, they could look at Lopez as a long-term piece that can upgrade at second base from Elvis Andrus, who has been awful this year. The Red Sox are in last place, but with a winning record and are just 1.5 games back of a Wild Card spot. They had hoped Adalberto Mondesi could solidify the shortstop position for them, but he has not played due to injury with no timetable for return. Instead they have had to play Enrique Hernández at short, and have had some of the worst defense in the league from that position.
Yankees rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe hasn’t hit as expected, and the Bronx Bombers could look to add a glove as depth. Angels rookie shortstop Zach Neto is out with an oblique injury, so they may want some depth at that position. The Dodgers have gotten zero offense from Miguel Rojas at short, and have had to use Chris Taylor and even Mookie Betts at the position at times. Any team that suffers an injury to a middle infielder this summer could be in the market for a veteran like Lopez.
A Nicky Lopez trade is not likely going to be a game-changer. But the Royals need to add talent as much as they can. Lopez is a good glove who can walk and be a good clubhouse presence. Those are things needed in Kansas City, but with younger infielders ready for big league action, it is probably time for Lopez to move on.