Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman's Player Projection series for 2023. Over the next few weeks, we'll be analyzing how various Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is infielder Nicky Lopez.
As the years pass, the KC Royals' 2021 season will become best remembered for how two players made another non-contending campaign something special.
Etched indelibly in Kansas City fans' memories will be the truly monster season of Salvador Perez, who homered 48 times to tie for the major league lead and the Royals' club record, led the majors with 121 RBIs, and broke Johnny Bench's long-standing single-season record for homers by a primary catcher. He also won his fourth Silver Slugger, a feat George Brett never achieved in his 21 Royal seasons.
And there was Nicky Lopez. Originally slated to start the season in the minors, he instead stepped into injured Adalberto Mondesi's shoes at shortstop and never looked back. Although his defense was, as always, superb, it was his bat that will forever make his 2021 so memorable. Lopez, who'd barely stayed above the Mendoza Line with a .201 average the year before, hit .300 to become the first Royal shortstop to ever hit that well.
Unfortunately, he regressed last season. The .227 he averaged over 144 games fueled the Lopez doubters' argument that 2021 was a fluke, an inexplicable performance he was incapable of ever repeating,
So, after hitting 73 points lower last season than he did in 2021, what will Lopez do this year?
How do FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference see Nicky Lopez's 2023 Royals season?
FanGraphs (Depth Charts version) and Baseball-Reference both project better offense from Lopez in 2023. The former predicts he'll hit two homers, drive in 29 runs, and slash .258/.318/.335 in 347 at-bats, while the latter projects three homers, 34 RBIs and a .254/.317/.330 line in 445 ABs.
How will Nicky Lopez actually perform for the KC Royals this season?
We can't share the optimism of FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference. Don't expect Lopez, whose .252 career average (notably skewed by hitting .300 two seasons ago) probably has much to do with their projections, to reach even the .250 level. Instead, anticipate him hitting around .240 (.245 at the most). Whether he homers two times or three won't matter because the Royals don't pay him for power.
One thing standing between Lopez and a good season at the plate will be playing time. KC's infield isn't set up for him to play regularly, which he did during his .300 season. Michael Massey has to be favored over him at second base, the Royals want Bobby Witt Jr. at shortstop, and Hunter Dozier seems set for a return to third. Should Dozier fail, Witt sliding over to the hot corner and prospect Maikel Garcia taking a shot at short is more likely than Lopez taking over at third. Lopez will be the utility infielder, which won't give him the everyday chances he seems to need to hit well.
Defensively, Lopez won't miss a beat; no matter how infrequently he plays, his glove will be excellent.
But when all is said and done, Lopez's 2023 campaign won't sparkle like his 2021 season did.
Nicky Lopez won't have a big season at the plate for the Royals.