KANSAS CITY -- While all eyes have been on Raul Mondesi the past few years as the Royals' potential shortstop of the future, the Royals also have a rising prospect at the position that continues to impress the team's Minor League staff: Nicky Lopez.
Lopez, 22, was a fifth-round pick out of Creighton in 2016, and he has risen through the system quickly. In just his second season as a professional, Lopez was promoted to Class A Advanced Wilmington, then to Double-A Northwest Arkansas in '17.
Lopez, a left-handed hitter who is the Royals' No. 11 prospect per MLBPipeline.com, was also assigned to the Arizona Fall League last month, where he is hitting .412 with a .972 OPS through nine games.
"Defense is what has gotten him there this fast," Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo told MLB.com. "Offensively, he does a really good job with his at-bats. He has an advanced, mature approach to hitting. He rarely swings early in counts, but when he does go early, he gets a good pitch. His pitch selection is good. He handles the fastball well. He can situational-hit."
Lopez has a .363 on-base percentage through two Minor League seasons. He also has 45 stolen bases.
"We see him as a top-of-the-order guy," Picollo said.
Unlike shortstop Alcides Escobar, a pending free agent whose lack of plate discipline frustrated fans and the coaching staff, and Mondesi, another free-swinger, Lopez could someday offer the Royals a different look at the position: an excellent defender who places a premium on getting on base.
"He understands what his strengths are," Picollo said of Lopez. "He's been like that since we drafted him.
"He can run and he's got some pop. But I don't think [power] is ever going to be a big part of his game. He's going to be an on-base guy."
What really impresses the Royals is Lopez's defensive instincts.
"He makes the really tough plays," Picollo said. "His sense of timing as a shortstop is something you really can't teach. He knows when he can take time to throw, when he can't. He knows the runners.
"Off the bat, you can just sense the wheels [in his head] are spinning and he knows what he has to do. Impressive kid."
While Mondesi would appear the logical replacement for Escobar if the latter opts to sign elsewhere this offseason, the Royals also know that Lopez is not that far away. And that insurance could be valuable if they ever decide to transition Mondesi to center field, a notion that has been discussed internally.
"When you have a kid that rises that fast through the system," Picollo said of Lopez, "there's a reason. He's got talent and awareness."