The Royals started the 2021 season in upbeat fashion having clinched the best record in the Cactus League, thanks to standout campaigns from Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier. New signings Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana looked like key new pieces to join speedstars Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. Workaholic Salvador Perez had signed a contract extension, and the rotation including Mike Minor, Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic looked intriguing. And star prospects Bobby Witt Jr., Kyle Isbel and Daniel Lynch looked like legitimate candidates to break camp for a lineup that would challenge the Twins and White Sox in the AL Central.
The odd man out was lightweight, middle-infielder, Nicky Lopez, who was optioned to Omaha on 28 March after hitting just .118 in Spring Training. SB Nations’ Royals Review opined that “it’s conceivable that we won’t see him again at The K this year.”
Fast-forward five months and is not Merrfield or Perez or Witt Jr. who is the Royals most valuable player, it is Lopez.
With Mondesi hitting the IL before Opening Day, Lopez became a fixture at shortstop.
A fifth-round pick, Lopez is the only bright spot of the Royals dreadful 2016 draft. They forfeited their first-round pick by signing free agent Ian Kennedy, then took (and signed over slot) AJ Puckett in the second round. Now with the Braves organisation, Puckett is an older-than-average starter currently pitching in High-A for the Rome Braves.
The Royals third-round pick was pitcher Khalil Lee, who was converted to an outfielder. The 23-year-old is hitting .056 with the Mets this season. In the fourth round, the Royals took another pitcher, Jace Vines, who is working out of the bullpen with a 3.76 ERA in Triple-A.
Lopez, drafted for his defensive prowess, has taken strides to improve his approach this season with 34 walks to 53 strikeouts, and he hits to all fields – albeit with minimal power.
The 26-year-old has brought “small ball” to the Kauffmann this season, leading all MLB hitters with 10 sacrifice bunts. Actually, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright has more, but that spoils the stat.
The bunts help the team – except last week when the Royals bizarrely got Lopez to bunt leadoff hitter Merrifield over to second base with no outs in the first inning – but Lopez also leads the team with .342 OBP. An impressive achievement within a roster that boasts on-base stud, Carlos Santana.
And when he gets to first, Lopez has the wheels to swipe second. The shortstop has 17 stolen bases this season with a 100% success rate. Only the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette has more bags without being caught.
Lopez, who is under team control until 2026, destroyed a fun fact last week when he went deep against the Astros. He was on pace to be the most valuable player to go a whole season without homering. Damn Astros!
Who knows what 2022 holds in store for Lopez. Regular shortstop (and fantasy baseball God) Mondesi oozes potential. Over his last 162 games, he has 18 home runs and 67 stolen bases. Surely he won’t suffer a similar injury-plagued season next year.
And then there is Witt Jr., MLB’s Number 3 prospect, and judging by his .945 OPS as a 21-year-old in Triple-A, he belongs in the big leagues.
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