With the first quarter of the season now in their rearview mirror, the Royals decided to start making changes. The first step will be debuting highly regarded infielder Nicky Lopez in the major leagues.
The club announced on Monday that it will select Lopez from Triple A Omaha before Tuesday’s series opener against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium.
“I think what he’s done in Triple A certainly speaks to his readiness,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of Lopez. “He’s been highly successful in Triple A, not only the end of last year but the beginning of this year.”
Right-handed relief pitcher Jake Newberry was optioned to Triple A after Sunday’s game.
Because Lopez is not on the 40-man roster, a corresponding move will be announced on Tuesday.
Lopez, 24, was the Royals’ fifth-round selection in the 2016 draft. He’s been raking in Omaha, with a .353/.457/.500 slash line, six doubles and three home runs. He has 27 runs scored and nine stolen bases.
Last season, Lopez split the year between Double A Northwest Arkansas and Omaha and hit .308/.382/.417. He led all Royals minor-leaguers in hits (155) and won the organization’s George Brett Award as their top minor league player.
“The first month and a half of the season, his contact rates are unbelievable,” Moore said. “His versatility and athleticism in the middle of the diamond profile for exactly what we need and what we want. I think it lengthens out our lineup.”
Lopez has played 14 games at second base and 16 at shortstop this season. With Adalberto Mondesi entrenched as the everyday shortstop, Lopez will play second base.
In order for Lopez to play second base regularly, the Royals plan to move Whit Merrifield to the outfield on an almost everyday basis.
Moore said the club discussed the move with Merrifield before making the decision. Merrifield, who is batting .286 with a .342 on-base percentage and a .512 slugging percentage this season, led the majors in hits and stolen bases last season. He’s become a team leader along with veterans Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez.
“Any time that you are moving one of your important and key members of your team, a veteran player who is one of the better players in the league and who you just signed to a long-term contract, you want to make sure you have those discussions with the player,” Moore said.
Merrifield signed off on the move. The front office and coaching staff previously expressed concern about Merrifield wearing down, physically, if he played the outfield regularly. Moore said the organization now feels that not constantly moving Merrifield back and forth from infield to outfield will limit the wear and tear.
Chris Owings remains on the roster as a backup shortstop and in a utility role defensively. Jorge Soler will still play right field at times, according to Moore, but he’ll likely see most of his at-bats at designated hitter with Merrifield moving to the outfield.
“Ned and I came to a very clear understanding at this point in time,” Moore said. “With where we are during the season, we’re going to simply move forward with the most productive players that we can for the immediate future. Whoever is producing is going to play. It’s as simple as that.”
Lopez spent the majority of spring training in big-league camp, and Royals manager Ned Yost showered praise upon Lopez for his work ethic, approach to the game and desire to learn.
“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 in March. “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.”