KC Royals: Jorge Lopez is gone, but mystery remains

The KC Royals and Jorge Lopez have parted ways. But the mystery of the pitcher’s unsuccessful Kansas City days remains.

Jorge Lopez no longer pitches for the KC Royals. The Baltimore Orioles, an inferior team trying, like the Royals, to rebuild and reclaim a proud history, claimed Lopez off the waiver wire Sunday three days after Kansas City designated him for assignment.

To consider Lopez’s departure the end of an era would seriously mischaracterize his two-plus years with Kansas City; “era” is a term better reserved for periods of noteworthy accomplishment, and Lopez’s stay with the Royals was anything but.

The 27-year old right-hander came to the club tagged as a potential-filled hurler with stuff frequently described as “electrifying.” That description was accurate–Lopez does, at times, display mesmerizing pitches–but it may have been too much of a burden to bear.

Lopez did not, by any conceivable measure, enjoy a good tenure with KC. For whatever reason or reasons, he could never establish a role for himself and, consequently, the Royals never established a role for him. He started, relieved in a variety of situations, and there were rumblings last year, and into this season, that the club might try him as an opener. The mutual struggle of player and team to discover a place for Lopez never succeeded and, finally, looked like it never would.

The KC Royals entered 2020 spring training, Summer Camp, and then the shortened season searching for a fifth starter to top off the planned foursome of Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Jakob Junis and Mike Montgomery. Lopez was often thought to be a candidate for the fifth spot, but how serious the club was, or could be, about the prospect will, with Lopez’s exit, probably never be known.

What is known, of course, is that Lopez, the one person controlling his rotation destiny, couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity. His spring training and Summer Camp performances yielded little to commend him to the job, and he likely wasn’t in strong contention for a rotation assignment even after COVID-19 forced Keller and Junis to the sidelines before the season even started.

Lopez likely sealed his own fate in Kansas City’s third game of the season when, summoned by manager Mike Matheny in the bottom of the third inning to replace Ronald Bolanos, who’d pitched the first two frames of what was either an “opener” or “bullpen” game, he faced five batters, gave up three hits and two runs, and couldn’t finish the inning. It was his only appearance of the season; the club put him on the bereavement list a few days later, then DFA’d him when he returned.

Realistically, Lopez’s past performance coupled with an odd outing in one of the club’s exhibition games meant he probably wasn’t well-positioned for an important role. Consistent with his erratic pitching since joining the KC Royals, Lopez hit two straight Astros with the bases loaded in an exhibition game against the Astros; Jose Altuve was his first victim to finish a 3-2 count, then he hit Alex Bregman on 1-2.

Some may have praised the plunkings as retaliation for Houston’s infamous trash can cheating scandal, but there can be no doubt vengeance wasn’t Lopez’s mission. Even in exhibition contests, inconsistent pitchers struggling to save their jobs don’t headhunt, especially with the bases loaded and the game’s importance magnified as one of the final tune-ups of a uniquely expedited training camp.

No, hitting Altuve and Bregman simply wasn’t Lopez’s purpose. Not when pitching well meant so much.

The fact and truth of the matter is that pitching well is what Lopez had to do from the moment he arrived in Kansas City; rarely did he do so. There was, of course, his magical performance against Minnesota in a meaningless (for the Royals) September game in 2018, a masterful display of precision pitching that allowed Lopez to take the mound in the ninth with a perfect game.

It was his fifth KC start after landing with the club as part of the return from Milwaukee for Mike Moustakas–he arrived from the Brewers with Brett Phillips in late July, and promptly lost his first three starts, but then won his last before facing the Twins on the road.

Lopez became the first KC Royals pitcher to take a perfect game so far, but he couldn’t finish it, or a no-hitter. He walked Minnesota’s leadoff man, then surrendered a single to the next batter. He and the Royals won, but Lopez flopped in his next two starts, giving up 10 runs and 17 hits across 5.1 combined innings.

Unfortunately, that early inconsistency foretold the essence of his short Kansas City stay. In 47 games and over 158 innings pitched, he never got on track, never found his niche. He started 25 games and relieved in 22; he bounced back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen last season as manager Ned Yost struggled to find a place for him. Lopez failed to distinguish himself in either role, posting a 6.57 ERA as a starter and 5.79 out of the pen, while opposing batters touched him for .287 in the former role and .284 in the latter. He finished 4-9 with a 6.33 ERA.

Overall, he was 6-13 for the KC Royals with a 6.42 ERA (73 ERA+), gave up over 10 hits per nine innings, and saved one game.

In the final analysis, Lopez was, as I wrote several months ago in detailing his KC history now summarized here, a Royal dilemma. The talk of his electrifying stuff was more than just talk–he was indeed possessed of mystifying, wicked stuff capable of freezing the best bats in the business. Why he couldn’t bring it with consistency, and why his performance remained predictably unpredictable, will always be mysteries he and the Royals surely wish they could have solved.

So now, Lopez and the KC Royals have parted ways, probably for good–it’s difficult to see the club renewing interest in him down the road, especially considering the history and the talented young pitchers already arriving on the Kansas City scene.

Perhaps Jorge Lopez will find success with Baltimore, a team desperately in need of the kind of pitching he can occasionally deliver. Perhaps he’ll find his way with the Orioles. As far as the Royals go, however, he and the club can only imagine what might have been but never was.

Jorge Lopez isn’t with the KC Royals anymore. Why he couldn’t succeed in Kansas City may never be known.