Royals trade versatile Lopez to Braves

Kansas City acquires lefty reliever Hearn as Deadline activity continues

July 31st, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals said goodbye to one of their mainstay players on Sunday afternoon when they traded versatile infielder to the Braves for lefty reliever .

The club announced the move after Kansas City swept the Twins this weekend at Kauffman Stadium.

Royals get: LHP Taylor Hearn
Braves get: INF Nicky Lopez

Lopez, despite being just 28 years old and a Super Two player with two more years of arbitration eligibility before becoming a free agent, was one of the longest tenured Royals on this young club. He was selected by the organization in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of Creighton.

Three years later, Lopez made his Major League debut. Over the past four seasons, Lopez became a leader among a new wave of Royals to reach the big leagues while becoming a steady and reliable defender.

In 2021, Lopez became the first everyday Royals shortstop to hit .300. He’s shown his ability to move around the infield and has seven Outs Above Average this season, including four at third base.

Now, Lopez joins a Braves team eyeing contention. And his defensive versatility -- having played second base, third base, shortstop and now first base and left field this season -- should be an asset in the late innings down the stretch.

Lopez is a left-handed bat who offers speed and the ability to get on base, with a .323 OPS this season and career-high 11.2% walk rate across 160 at-bats.

“Little emotional,” general manager J.J. Picollo said about telling Lopez he had been traded. “This is the only team he’s known. He was grateful for the opportunity; I think he used the words, ‘Giving me a chance.’ … On the positive side, [he’s joining] a team that’s good.

“He’s got a chance to contribute there and be part of something that could turn out to be a pretty special year for them.”

Picollo said the Royals and Braves began trade discussions involving Lopez a few days ago, with Atlanta needing infield depth and Kansas City seeking pitching help.

In Hearn, the Royals see a reliever who could see success if things click, although there’s risk involved given this is now Hearn’s fifth organization since he was selected by Washington in the fifth round of the 2015 MLB Draft.

“Always somebody we’ve had some interest in because he’s a big left-hander with a big fastball,” Picollo said. “Got to work on his command a little bit, but the velocity’s there. The pitch characteristics are something we look for, the slider’s good.

“It just seemed to match up value-for-value.”

Hearn, 28, has pitched in five big league games in 2023, but he has spent most of the season in Triple-A, where he’s posted a 3.66 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 24 walks in 39 1/3 innings. The Braves acquired him on Monday for cash after the Rangers designated him for assignment; the Royals did have a chance to acquire him then, but they passed on that opportunity.

There is some money being saved in this deal with the Braves taking on the remainder of Lopez’s $3.7 million salary, while Hearn is making $1.4 million this season, according to Cot’s Contracts.

With Lopez’s rising salary and limited playing time, he could have been a non-tender candidate this offseason.

Hearn clearly has command issues to work through, but the Royals are encouraged by his pitch characteristics that include a 96 mph fastball and 87 mph slider, along with the ability to throw a changeup.

“With relievers, you’re just trying to hit on something – sometimes it’s just one tweak, and all of a sudden, they’re more consistent and you can rely on him a bit more,” Picollo said. “Our group was optimistic about him.”

Hearn was added to the Royals’ 40-man roster and optioned to Triple-A Omaha. Kansas City will make a roster move prior to Tuesday’s series opener against the Mets at Kauffman Stadium. It’s likely infielder Matt Beaty will be reinstated from his rehab assignment to help the Royals at first base until Nick Pratto returns from the injured list.

More playing time will also go to infielder/outfielder Samad Taylor, while there are a host of Triple-A position players the club would like to see in Kansas City as the season winds down, including Nate Eaton again and potentially Nick Loftin, ranked as the Royals’ No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline.

“And then we’ve got to start looking at some guys that aren’t on our roster,” Picollo said. “When is the right time to get them in the mix and get them some at-bats this season, too?”