In a somewhat surprising move, the Royals have optioned second baseman Nicky Lopez to Triple-A, per Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star (via Twitter). Whit Merrifield is now in line to move in from the outfield to man second base, notes the Athletic’s Alec Lewis (via Twitter).
Looking at the numbers, it’s not a shock to see Lopez sent down for further seasoning. His 55 wRC+ across 192 plate appearances in 2020 ranked dead last among the 142 qualified hitters in the Majors. He slashed .201/.286/.266 with a meager .065 ISO. Specifically, the quality of his contact was lacking: He finished in the fourth percentile league-wide for exit velocity, barrel rate, and expected slugging. That said, he provides elite defense at the keystone, he runs well, and with a 9.4 percent walk rate and 21.4 percent strikeout rate, his approach at the plate is solid.
Despite his struggles, the Royals have stood behind Lopez. It certainly seemed as if they were planning on entering 2021 with Lopez as their starting second baseman. Per MLB.com’s Anne Rogers (via Twitter), manager Mike Matheny commented, saying, “We had some conversations, knowing that we have some time to get his swing in the right place. He’s been working the last several days and has made some good strides.”
With Lopez heading to Triple-A and Merrifield moving to second, Kyle Isbel looks like a possibility to start the season in right field. He would need to be added to the 40-man roster, as does Hanser Alberto, who seems likely to make the roster as a reserve infielder. Alberto could benefit from extra playing time, with Hunter Dozier seeing time in right. If not Isbell, Jarrod Dyson, Nick Heath, Edward Olivares, or Ryan McBroom could be given more playing time in the outfield. Alternatively, Jorge Soler could see time in right, and the Royals could deploy a rotating designated hitter.