This should be one of the more interesting offseasons for the Royals. Franchise mainstays Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas -- all of whom helped Kansas City win the 2015 World Series and have combined for five All-Star appearances during their time with the club -- are becoming free agents, and keeping that group in royal blue is nothing short of a distant dream, given the team's payroll history.
As a result, starting spots are likely to open up at key positions -- a fact that Royals prospects have surely noticed. Among these interested parties is No. 11 Kansas City prospect Nicky Lopez, who finished 2017 at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League and should be considered a potential successor to Escobar at shortstop, either in the short or long term.
"We're all aware of the free agents and the moves that could go on," Lopez said. "All I can really do is try to get better at my game. They say when you're at Double-A or in the Arizona Fall League, you're not too far away. You could get the call at any moment, so we all have to put ourselves in a position to be ready. There could be a lot of changes, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It's a big family with the Royals, and it really fits my game to be part of this organization."
The 22-year-old is taking advantage of his time in the AFL, proving to the Royals that he's worthy of a prominent spot on the organization's depth chart. Lopez leads the league with a .385 average and 25 hits through 16 games with Surprise. His .444 OBP places second, his 37 total bases are tied for third and his 1.014 OPS sits fourth. On Tuesday, the left-handed hitter began the Saguaros' 6-1 win at Glendale with a leadoff homer, his first long ball since May 22 with Class A Advanced Wilmington.
For a player best known for his defensive acumen at a demanding position -- MLB.com gives him a plus 60 grade for his arm and above-average 55 for his glove -- Lopez is doing his best to stand out offensively as well while under the Arizona microscope.
"Being able to showcase my skills anywhere is a good thing," he said. "I am the player I am, and I know the Royals have a plan for me. All I can do is put faith in that my best effort will keep working. If that's enough, that's enough. I want to show I'm capable, and I'll keep putting in the work to prove that."
That's a significant jump from the 2016 fifth-rounder's performance at the plate during his first full season. Lopez hit .279/.348/.356 with two homers, eight triples, 18 doubles and 21 steals in 129 games between Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
The improvement can't simply be chalked up to the fact that anything can happen in a small sample, however. Lopez said he worked early in the Fall League with Surprise hitting coach Jobel Jimenez on making adjustments that would allow him to become a better leadoff hitter. The first involved his stance.
Offseason MiLB include
"[Jimenez] and I came up with a bit of a solution, and that was to close things down," Lopez said. "I was more open at Double-A. But here I've closed in my stance, and there are less moving parts, which makes things a lot better. It's been working for me."
The other was to use a bigger bat, both in length and weight. Lopez had traditionally used a 33-inch, 30-ounce or even a 32 1/2-inch, 29 1/2-ounce bat before he arrived in the Fall League. Now he's up to a 33 1/2-inch, 31 1/2-ounce stick, and though the 5-foot-11, 175-pound infielder isn't known for his strength, he's found no issues handling the change. In fact, it's been quite the opposite.
"The heavier bat, I mean it's more mass multiplied by velocity, so there's more momentum," Lopez said. "I feel like I'm getting more behind the ball, and you can see it really jumps -- it's coming off harder on contact, which is great."
Video: Lopez & Burt turn a jaw dropping 6-4-3 double play
Adjustments aside, Lopez did have something to prove after the way his season ended in the Texas League.
Given his work defensively and above-average speed, the former Creighton Bluejay had earned his jump to the Minors' second-highest level on June 26 after producing a solid .295/.376/.407 line and 125 wRC+ in 70 games in the Carolina League. But after a solid start with Northwest Arkansas, Lopez tailed off significantly in the last few weeks of the 2017 season. From Aug. 1 to the end of the campaign, he hit .220/.267/.229 with only one extra-base hit in 118 plate appearances over 28 games.
It got so rough that when Naturals manager Vance Wilson first asked Lopez if he had winter ball plans, he planned to say no before being told, "Congrats, you're going to the AFL." The elevated status of the Fall League was all Lopez needed to change his autumnal outlook, but he definitely needed the two weeks off between seasons to recuperate first.
"Because it was my first full season, it really became a grind," he said. "I wasn't used to the taxing toll on my body. Now I know what it takes to get through a whole season, but you saw how my numbers fell. Coming back in the Fall League and doing this has been a big confidence boost, because I know what I'm capable of doing. I just had to show it again."
If this offensively improved Lopez is indeed what he's capable of going forward, the Royals will have plenty to think about this offseason. Even before Lopez's AFL breakout, Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo told MLB.com, "We see him as a top-of-the-order guy." Of course, Kansas City already has a young middle infielder on its 40-man roster in Raul Mondesi, who was the club's top prospect before making his Major League debut in the 2015 Fall Classic. Mondesi has struggled in the Majors, hitting .181/.226/.245 over 72 games, but is actually four months younger than Lopez with much more pro experience. He'd be the immediate favorite to take over should Escobar depart, but the leash might not be long, leaving the door open for Lopez to potentially jump ahead in 2018.
At the very least, Lopez will likely receive an invite to Major League Spring Training, where he'll get the chance to show that these AFL improvements are sustainable. He'll be sure to bring his bigger bat, and he's hoping to bring a bigger frame as well.
"I want to look a little different by the time everyone sees me in the spring," he said. "I take pride in my defense and being a good leadoff hitter and all that. But the biggest thing for me is the physical aspect and making sure I can finish out a season as strong as I start it."