The KC Royals are winning, but is a problem brewing?

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals have won three of four. But a problem could be developing.

The KC Royals beat Cleveland 3-0 Monday afternoon to spoil the Indians’ home opener. Whit Merrifield drove in all of Kansas City’s runs, and now has nine RBIs in four games. Danny Duffy shut out the Tribe for six innings and struck out five. And the Royals moved into a first place tie with the Twins.

The story of this day, however, belongs to the guy who wasn’t even supposed to be on the roster, much less in the starting lineup.

Nicky Lopez had two hits and a walk and is now 6-for-14. His OBP is .438.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Royals, realizing finally that Lopez was better off working on his hitting in the minor leagues, sent him out last week, leaving him off the roster and in the hands of the organization’s hitting staff where he could do no harm to Kansas City’s early hopes.

The demotion was inevitable. Lopez hit .118 in 16 Cactus League games this spring and .201 last season. His .228/.279/.307 slash coming into 2021 tells much of the unsightly story of his work with the bat.

Partly to blame for Lopez’s near-demise at the plate is what appeared to be a hunger for power hitting he suddenly developed in 2020. Seemingly bent on hitting homers and knocking down fences, Lopez lacked plate discipline, looked tense and tight, and struck out 21.4 percent of the time, an increase of almost nine percent over 2019. Never before had he fanned at such a rate.

This season is different. Recalled to replace injured Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop, Lopez seems at once more relaxed, yet more disciplined, in the box. He’s struck out once in 14 official at-bats. He hasn’t homered because he isn’t trying to.

Lopez’s average is .429; the season is still in its infancy, and he’ll cool off sooner or later, but what happens if Lopez is still hitting well, or at least far better than he did last season and in spring training, when Mondesi returns?

The simple answer is the Royals will keep him and reinstall him at second base, where they love his glove with good reason. But solving the Lopez problem will unavoidably create another, one that will start with moving Merrifield back to right field, where Kansas City wanted him to play before Mondesi’s oblique injury required replacing him with Lopez and shifting Merrifield to second. The Mondesi-triggered chain reaction ended with rookie Kyle Isbel making the Opening Day roster to play right. Isbel is also hot—he’s hitting .357 through Monday.

But if the Royals deem Lopez’s bat sufficiently improved, Isbel will have no place to play regularly even if he, too, continues to hit; none among Mondesi, Lopez and Merrifield will be sacrificed for Isbel as long as Lopez doesn’t regress significantly.

The KC Royals could decide to keep Isbel, of course, but only as a reserve outfielder. Unwise is the most charitable way to describe such a potential decision: Isbel’s lack of experience—other than in spring training, the 2018 draftee hadn’t seen a pitch above Advanced A ball until last Thursday’s season opener—demands that he get regular at-bats. He won’t get them sitting on the Kansas City bench.

All of this assumes, of course, that Lopez has found his way, or is at least close to doing so. If he goes back into a hitting funk, however, the club’s original plans for the early stages of this season will be back in place. As always, time will tell.

Next. KC won't be Cleveland's doormat. dark

Nicky Lopez is hitting well for the KC Royals. If he stays serviceable at the plate, Kyle Isbel will probably be the odd man out.