The 2018 season hasn’t been much fun for the Kansas City Royals. After the team’s 2015 World Series victory, things have slowly spiraled out of control and the club is now well into a true rebuild. They have finished the season in last place in a dreadful AL Central, behind two other tanking teams: the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox.

John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com ranked the Kansas City farm system the worst in baseball prior to the 2018 season. However, after a strong draft and trade deadline, Sickels’ colleague, Wayne Cavadi, included the Royals among the most improved systems of the year. Right-handers Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, the Royals top two picks in the draft, give the organization the type of pitching potential it has been missing for years. Meanwhile, outfielders Seuly Matias and Khalil Lee flash the kind of loud tools that leave scouts drooling. However, the future is looking brighter for the Royals and it could all be because of the impact of prospect Nicky Lopez, the 23 year old shortstop.

The Royals picked Lopez in the fifth round of the 2016 draft out of Creighton University. That March, in regards to Lopez, Rob Ozga of Baseball Draft Report wrote “his bat might keep him as more of a utility player than starter.” That was more or less the industry consensus at the time – Lopez could field and run, but his bat would likely hold him back from being an above-average starting shortstop. But as late as the fifth round, the Royals decided they would take a chance on the swing, and see how Lopez could develop.

Against the lesser competition of Rookie Ball in 2016, Lopez dominated. He slashed .281/.393/.429 with six home runs in only 62 games. He also stole 24 bases and walked more than he struck out. This earned him a promotion to High-A to start the 2017 season, where predictably his power stalled. Between High-A and Double-A that season he posted only a .077 ISO (isolated slugging) and hit two home runs. He continued to provide value elsewhere with exactly as many walks as strikeouts, 21 stolen bases between the two levels, and his usual plus defense.

Lopez impressed in the AFL in 2017, slashing .383/.433/.568 with two home runs and three stolen bases. He also showed off his usual smooth defense up the middle. “I just had fun with it,” Lopez told Alan Eskew of Baseball America. “I tried to play loose, go out there every day with a fun attitude and an open mind. I tried to learn by playing with the best prospects in baseball. It was a cool experience.”

His strong AFL performance helped Lopez earn the number five spot on Eric Longenhagen’s preseason list of top Royals prospects. “Lopez is a smooth defender at short and makes strong, accurate throws from all over the infield,” Longenhagen wrote. “His size and lack of power on contact have been concerns dating back to college, but Lopez made some noise with the bat during the 2017 Fall League, and there’s now increased confidence that he has big-league physicality.”

AFL statistics can be unreliable at times. Not only is the sample size incredibly small with only a 30-game schedule, but the competition level varies widely. Some players come directly from rookie ball, while others have had plenty of Triple-A and sometimes even MLB experience.

However, in 2018, Lopez proved that his AFL improvements were no fluke. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he slashed .308/.382/.417 with nine home runs and 15 stolen bases and, as usual, more walks than strikeouts. “I think it was my success that I had in (Arizona) and just carrying over that confidence, knowing that I can play on the same field as these guys,” Lopez told Blake Baumgartner of the Naperville Sun. “I can go toe-to-toe with these guys. Just having that confidence that I produced in the Fall League and I can do this in the season as well.”

The .139 ISO that Lopez posted at Triple-A was his highest at any level since rookie ball, and there might be a reason for the power uptick. In a February 2018 interview with Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star, Lopez explained that he was given a heavier bat by an equipment vendor at the AFL. In addition, Lopez told Dodd that he focused more on strength training during the offseason, adding “10 to 12 pounds.”

Lopez also posted his lowest ground ball rate of his minor league career in 2018. Paired with his all-fields approach, this means Lopez was spraying line drives and fly balls around the ballpark at the highest rate of his career. His 30 extra base hits were the highest for a full season of his career.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Lopez is what this approach could mean when he reaches the Major Leagues. The only four qualified hitters in all of Major League Baseball to walk more than they struck out in 2018 were Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Alex Bregman, and Joey Votto. Those are four fantastic hitters, and two of them (Ramirez and Bregman) are currently MVP candidates.

Granted, it is unlikely Lopez would be able to continue walking more than he strikes out in the Major Leagues. But if he maintains even above average plate discipline, he is likely to produce well offensively. Among all qualifying MLB hitters with a 0.65 BB/K rate or higher, only two – Max Kepler and Victor Martinez – were below average hitters, posting a wRC+ lower than 100.

Lopez also has serious potential for offensive growth. Much research has been done to investigate the power surge MLB has experienced in recent years, with most signs pointing towards a juiced ball. This has resulted in many minor leaguers making it to the Majors and showing much more power than they ever did before.

Two of the best examples of this trend are Cleveland Indians superstars Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. Both players – middle infielders like Lopez – showed above average plate discipline in the minor leagues, but below average power. Ramirez’s highest ISO at any minor league stop was .139, while Lindor’s highest was .118. The most home runs Ramirez had hit in a single minor league season was five; for Lindor, it was 11.

Fast forward to 2018, and the pair has combined for 75 home runs! They have developed into two of the best players in the game of baseball. For both players, this power breakout was caused by an increase in pull percentage as well as an increase in fly ball rate. Now, it is very unlikely Lopez finds this much power. But between the juiced ball and a slight tweak in his approach, double-digit homers is certainly within the realm of possibility for the young left-handed hitter.

In early September, Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs.com identified another comparable player to Lopez – San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik. Panik posted similarly elite plate discipline numbers in the minor leagues, while also hitting for little to no power. However, Panik hit 10 home runs each in 2016 and 2017 and has developed into a very useful player, even playing half of his games in spacious AT&T Park. This type of career is more than achievable for Lopez, and as a shortstop, he could end up becoming even more valuable than Panik.

Nicky Lopez has it all. He has strong tools, raw talent, renewed confidence, and the work ethic to put it all together. With the rebuilding Kansas City Royals, it shouldn’t be long before he has the last thing he needs – an opportunity. Lopez should get his first chance on a Major League field early in 2019, and he will not waste it.

  • Josh Iversen

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