Royals taking deliberate approach with Nicky Lopez’s development

Royals prospect Nicky Lopez, the organization’s George Brett Award winner last year, is in Triple-A and knocking on the door. Perhaps that knocking has become a banging this year.

After having spent most of spring training in big-league camp, Lopez is off to a stellar offensive start in the minors, yet remains in Triple-A, where he’s hit .363 with a .463 on-base percentage and a .513 slugging percentage through 30 games.

Saturday, Royals general manager Dayton Moore addressed Lopez’s development and his potential promotion to the majors.

“Nicky is a terrific player,” Moore said. “He’s a big part of our future. It’s just finding the right opportunity. We’re excited about where he is.”

Moore touched on a range of topics with reporters. During the discussion of the current major-league club, he said there weren’t any call ups that made sense or “fit” currently to augment the current roster.

Moore believes that a large part of the decision to call up a young talent like Lopez, 24, is to gain experience playing every day. Moore and his staff have no appetite for Lopez serving in a part-time role.

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Lopez has played 14 games at second base and 16 at shortstop this season. With Adalberto Mondesi entrenched as the starting shortstop, Lopez’s path to everyday playing time would come at second base.

However in that scenario, the Royals would likely need to move Whit Merrifield to the outfield full time. The club would be hesitant to make that move permanently because there are concerns that Merrifield, 30, could break down physically if forced to play the outfield exclusively. A move to the outfield full time could take away from his offensive production. Merrifield, the club’s leadoff hitter, led the majors in both steals and hits last season.

“If they’re baseball players and they love the game, they’re going to show up and play no matter what level that they’re in,” Moore said. “That’s the common denominator of every player that I’ve been around in 27 years of player development and scouting in professional baseball. There’s value in playing every day.”

The organization’s stance on calling up Lopez could soften as the season approaches the midway point or later in the summer.

By that time, Lopez will have benefited from playing everyday for a large chunk of the season. Lopez playing a part-time role in the later stages of the season may be viewed differently by the front office than him spending most of the season in the majors with limited playing time.

Moore’s track record certainly shows that he doesn’t believe one size fits all approach to bringing players up to the majors. Merrifield spent seven years in the minors before getting a chance in 2016, and he was a 3.9 wins above replacement (WAR) player in 2017 and registered a 5.5 WAR last season.

The Royals kept Eric Hosmer in the minors to start the 2011 season when he’d swung a red-hot bat in the minors. Hosmer’s slash line at the time of his promotion was .439/.525/.582. When he came up, the Royals made sure he had the chance to play regularly.

Flip flop: Royals manager Ned Yost is starting Merrifield in right field on Sunday for the first time since April 11. He went into a game on April 17 as a late-game substitute in right field. Yost said he made the move so that Chris Owings could get some time at second base, where he hadn’t played since April 19.

Timing is everything: Jakob Junis starts for the Royals on Sunday afternoon. He’s 3-0 in day games, and he’s posted a 4.30 ERA in those starts. In night games, Junis has gone 0-3 with a 7.98 ERA. He’ll throw to catcher Cam Gallagher today as Martin Maldonado get the day game after a night game off.

Sunday’s lineup

1. Whit Merrifield, rf

2. Adalberto Mondesi, ss

3. Alex Gordon, lf

4. Hunter Dozier, 1b

5. Jorge Soler, dh

6. Kelvin Gutierrez, 3b

7. Chris Owings, 2b

8. Cam Gallagher, c

9. Billy Hamilton, cf

Starting pitcher: Jakob Junis (rh, 3-3, 5.52)

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.