Loftin embracing utility role with Royals

February 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Nick Loftin learned very quickly last year that playing first base wasn’t going to be as easy of a transition as he thought it would be. He’s a player who doesn’t like to think when he steps onto the field, letting his instincts take over, but playing first base had him thinking all the time.

“Ball’s hit to the wall, you’re trailing the runner to second base,” Loftin said. “You’re now the cutoff to center field and right field. You’re holding guys on base. You’re in the action. Every pitch, I was thinking, ‘All right, if this ball is hit, where am I going? Where do I need to be?’ But it was fun. I enjoyed it, and something I get more and more comfortable with every day I play the position.”

Loftin, the Royals’ No. 5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, logged 40 innings across eight games at first base in his short stint in the Majors last year, but his versatility is going to be his biggest asset in 2024, whether he makes the Opening Day roster or comes up throughout the season. He’s played all over the field in his professional career but mainly at third base, second and shortstop.

Now, Loftin is getting reps at first base and in the corner outfield this spring in case he’s needed there as depth for first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino or the several outfielders competing for a roster spot. Every morning on the back fields, Loftin is working with Royals infield coach José Alguacil at a different position on the dirt or shagging balls in the outfield during batting practice.

“I’m embracing that utility role and understanding that I’m just going to be everywhere this year,” Loftin said. “That’s where my career is going to be taking me.”

Because of that versatility, manager Matt Quatraro has options when it comes to slotting Loftin in the lineup, and if he has a big spring, the Royals will want to find ways to have his contact-oriented bat playing every day. Loftin impressed in a small sample size last year after his debut in September, when he posted an .803 OPS in 19 games. His hit tool has always been his calling card, both as an amateur at Baylor and through his pro career after the Royals drafted him No. 32 overall in the 2020 Draft.

“The quality of his at-bats was what stood out the most,” Quatraro said. “We put him in some tough spots, pinch-hitting him knowing they were going to go to a righty when he came in the game. He put up some good at-bats against those guys. And his defensive versatility was a big factor.”

Now that Loftin has a taste of the Majors, with some success and some adversity, he used the offseason focusing on the little things in his swing that got exposed, like handling pitches on the inner half and doing damage early on in counts.

“I noticed that last year, I lost direction a lot,” Loftin said. “I had the right approach and plan, I would just lose direction simply because my shoulders were collapsing and also the bat path wasn’t as clean as I would like it to be. Understanding what my body is supposed to be doing allows me to kind of fix it as the season goes on when my body wears down.”

Whether Loftin begins the season in Kansas City or with Triple-A Omaha remains to be seen, but with a month of Cactus League games to go, he’s not worrying about where he’ll be playing at the end of March.

All he’s thinking about at the end of the day is peeking at the whiteboard in the clubhouse to check where on the field he’s playing the next day.

“It’s almost like a surprise for me,” Loftin said. “It’s a lot of fun being able to go from first to second to short to third, even the outfield. Mix it all up.

“My motto is win pitches, not win a job. If I can win pitches every single day, everything else will take care of itself. I have no control over whether I’m on the team or not. That’s out of my control regardless of how I play. I just focus on going out there and winning pitches every single day and having fun doing it.”