If Alcides Escobar departs as a free agent, the Royals will need a new shortstop for the first time in eight seasons. Nicky Lopez, their best middle-infield prospect, isn't ready. He also isn't too far away after reaching Double-A in his first full pro season.To continue to expedite his development,
If Alcides Escobar departs as a free agent, the Royals will need a new shortstop for the first time in eight seasons. Nicky Lopez, their best middle-infield prospect, isn't ready. He also isn't too far away after reaching Double-A in his first full pro season.
To continue to expedite his development, Kansas City has sent Lopez to the Arizona Fall League. He's off to a fast start with the Surprise Saguaros, going 6-for-15 (.400) in his first four games.
Lopez's progress at the plate will determine when he'll join the Royals and whether he'll ultimately be an everyday player or a utilityman. When Kansas City selected him in the fifth round out of Creighton, he was one of the better college defenders available in the 2016 Draft.
Lopez, 22, has lived up to that reputation in pro ball. With soft hands, a strong arm and a nifty internal clock, he can make all of the plays at shortstop. He's also reliable, making just eight errors in 99 games at short and one error in 25 games at second base this season.
"Lopez reminds me of Nick Ahmed, that same kind of competitiveness with more bat," said Royals farm director Ronnie Richardson, who was with the Braves when they drafted Ahmed in 2011. "He's a plus defender with a chance to hit more than Ahmed. He sprays the ball around, has a good approach and he'll develop his bat as he gets stronger."
At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Lopez will never be a power hitter but understands that. He concentrates on making contact from the left side of the plate and can use his solid speed to steal an occasional base.
Lopez led the Rookie-level Appalachian League with 54 runs in his pro debut and batted .289 with more walks than strikeouts in his first two pro stops. But when he made the jump to Double-A, he hit just .259/.312/.293 in 59 games. He looked worn down in the final month, batting .220 with just one extra-base hit.
Lopez said the pitchers in Double-A were more advanced than he was accustomed to.
"They throw any pitch they want at any time," Lopez said. "I saw a lot more 3-1, 2-0 changeups, 3-2 sliders, you see it all. They're a lot more confident with their pitches. The hitters have more of an approach, too. You kind of have to develop more of an approach, you have to develop your game more."
The AFL gives him another opportunity to do so. He said he was excited when the Royals asked him to come to Arizona.
"It means a lot," Lopez said. "You see the competition here and see how they've done, their résumés and stuff like that, and you come here and see what they're like and how they compete. It's the best of the best right now and I'm just happy to be a part of it and happy to compete with them on the field."
Royals hitters in the Fall League
Nick Dini, C
Elier Hernandez, OF
A career .308 hitter since signing as a 14th-round pick out of Wagner in 2015, Dini batted .302/.364/.403 in 88 games between low Class A and Double-A this year. Defensively, he has an average arm that plays up thanks to a quick release and he frames pitches well.
One of the top prospects on the international market in 2011, Hernandez signed for $3.05 million out of the Dominican Republic. His aggressive approach has prevented him from fully tapping into his power potential, though he did hit .317/.355/.489 with 19 extra-base hits in 46 games between high Class A and Double-A before a groin injury cost him the last three months of the season.
Royals pitchers in the Fall League
Jacob Bodner, RHP
Zach Lovvorn, RHP
Jared Ruxer, RHP
Matt Tenuta, LHP
The hardest thrower among Kansas City's AFL pitchers, Bodner usually operates at 92-94 mph and also possesses a hard slider. The 27th-rounder from Xavier in 2015 went 5-1 with a 3.29 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings in high Class A.
A 2012 sixth-rounder from an Alabama high school, Lovvorn spent three seasons in Rookie ball and finally reached Double-A this year, going 4-9 with a 4.83 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 117 1/3 innings as a swingman. He mainly works off a low-90s fastball and a curveball.
Coming out of Louisville, Ruxer might have gone in the first five rounds of the 2014 Draft if he hadn't had Tommy John surgery shortly beforehand. The Angels took him in the 12th round and dealt him to the Royals last December for Brooks Pounders. Employing a 90-93 mph fastball and using a changeup as his primary secondary pitch, Ruxer went 5-7 with a 4.12 ERA and an 85/36 K/BB ratio in 115 2/3 innings, mostly in high Class A.
Tenuta, a 25th-rounder out of a North Carolina high school in 2012, has a repertoire similar to Ruxer's. He recorded a 6-4 record and 4.11 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings between high Class A and Double-A.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.