The world’s best baseball player stepped to the plate earlier this month against the Royals, and Kansas City manager Ned Yost was keen on seeing what would unfold.
But first, Yost glanced back into the Royals dugout.
“There would be times when we would be playing and Mike Trout was up and I’d turn and look and we’d have five or six young guys sitting on the bench,” Yost said. “How can you sit on the bench when Mike Trout’s up and you’re a young guy? Then there is Nicky Lopez and he’s watching and taking in every pitch of the at-bat.”
Lopez can usually be found at the top step of the dugout during Cactus League games observing an opponent, whether it’s Trout or another team’s minor-leaguer. While starters head for the clubhouse after they leave a spring-training game, Lopez usually sticks around all nine innings.
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“He knows that if he stays,” Yost said, “there may be one little thing that he can pick up that will make him better.”
“It’s pretty rare,” Yost added. “Young guys, you try to get them to stay focused and pay attention. They hit this field and they work. They have no other recourse. You step on the field and you work your tail off. You can step back and you know who loves the game and who doesn’t love the game. It’s pretty apparent.”
Lopez, who played second base and shortstop last year, is more than a student of the game. Since being picked in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, he’s bounded up four minor-league levels in three seasons and is the Royals’ No. 7 prospect, according to MLB.com.
Last year at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Lopez hit a scorching .363 over May and June with eight doubles, four triples and two home runs. In that span he had just 13 strikeouts in 219 plate appearances.
That earned him a promotion to Triple-A Omaha.
“I got to go to Triple-A, which was something I was striving for,” Lopez said. “This year, wherever I start, the focus is to get to the big leagues. That’s my goal.”
Lopez, 24, started off well last summer with the Storm Chasers and was hitting .320 by the end of July. But he ended the season batting just .242 over his final 30 games. By September, Lopez realized he dropped 6 pounds in five months, so gaining weight was an offseason goal and he put on 14 pounds.
It wasn’t fun.
“I generally don’t eat much, but just putting food in your body, always constantly eating,” said Lopez, who is a native of Naperville, Ill. “Focusing on what you need to eat, all the good things that need to go in your body. I was able to meet with the nutritionist here quite a bit in the offseason. I also came down here Jan. 7, partially to get away from the cold weather in Chicago, but also be here to meet with the nutritionist and get a jump start on the season.
“I’ve eaten a lot of chicken. It was rice, spaghetti, just pastas, breads. It’s not what I’m sick of eating. It’s just sick of being sick of eating.”
Lopez, who is 5 foot 11, now weighs 176 pounds, which makes him one of the smaller infielders at Royals camp.
He has heard criticism about his size and ... Lopez loves it.
“I think it’s awesome that people overlook me,” he said. “Some people take it to heart, but I think it’s awesome. The more people that overlook me, the more people I’ll have to show. It just fuels my fire.”
Yost certainly doesn’t care about Lopez’s stature, for reasons more than his .324 average this spring.
“I look at the intangibles and I look at what he can do on the field, I look at how he plays on the field, I look at his talent ability,” Yost said. “There are a lot of things I look at. Nicky is going to be a big-leaguer for a long time.”