Whit Merrifield seemed like the answer, but now the KC Royals are trying Nicky Lopez.
Whit Merrifield became the Royals’ second baseman in 2016 for two reasons. He was playing well, and Omar Infante, a major and continuing disappointment to the club, wasn’t.
Merrifield took the position by storm. He hasn’t won a Gold Glove there, or at any of their other positions the consummate utility man plays, but his glove is good and he’s better at the plate than any of Frank White’s would-be successors. Since taking over second five seasons ago, he’s led the major leagues in hits twice, stolen bases once (he paced the American League the year before that), triples another time, games played once, and at-bats twice.
That he’s no longer the KC Royals’ regular second baseman isn’t his fault. Instead, his move to the outfield is a function of two things: the team’s muddled and overcrowded picture there and the potential of present second baseman Nicky Lopez.
Lopez is a supremely talented infielder widely believed to be the club’s second baseman of the future and whose considerable time at second in 2019 foretold Merrifield’s full transition to the outfield, a move born of the need to stabilize things there while the Royals prepared for Alex Gordon’s predictable retirement and tried to sort out who among a plethora of promising youngsters might be suitable for the big leagues.
Merrifield, of course, was the outfielder the Royals trusted him to be in 2020. He was more than adequate defensively and hit nine homers, drove in 30 runs, hit .282 and stole 12 bases in the short 60-game campaign.
And Lopez’s defense was everything Kansas City expected it to be, and maybe more. He made just two errors in 211 chances at second (.991 fielding percentage) and, confirming predictions made all season long, is a Gold Glove finalist.
Lopez’s bat, though, could derail the Royals’ plans to pair him with shortstop Adalberto Mondesi for years to come. His .240/.276/.325 slash in 2019 was easy to write off to his rookie status, but this season’s .201/.286/.266 can’t be excused. Simply put, Lopez didn’t hit and didn’t get on base.
His .228/.279/.307 two-season slash isn’t good enough. He didn’t suffer such numbers at any minor league level—his career farm line is a respectable .296/.378/.403—which suggests he might not have a big league bat.
No one knows yet what the 2021 season will bring. But for Nicky Lopez, one thing is certain: all Royal eyes will focus on him the moment spring training begins. He must hit if he’s to end the club’s 30-year search for a long-term replacement for Frank White.
If he doesn’t, the search will continue.
The KC Royals’ quest for Frank White’s replacement is now decades long. Hopefully, Nicky Lopez will prove he can hit big league pitching and end the search.