What happens to Royals infielder Nicky Lopez now that Adalberto Mondesi is back?

By Briar Napier
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Royals infielder Nicky Lopez likely will see his playing time decrease with thereturn of Adalberto Mondesi's return from the injured list.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nicky Lopez's whirlwind of a season just took another twist.

The life of Lopez, the Royals' second baseman-turned-shortstop in the absence of Adalberto Mondesi, has seemed to revolve around the oft-injured Mondesi's health the past few months.

Optioned to Triple-A Omaha during a poor stretch of hitting in spring training, Lopez was suddenly back in the Royals' plans for Opening Day after Mondesi suddenly picked up a right oblique strain. After Mondesi returned for seven games and then went on the 10-day injured list because of a hamstring injury May 31, there was Lopez again, the replacement in tow.

Mondesi was activated from the injured list prior to Kansas City's 4-3 loss against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, meaning the American League's reigning stolen base leader is almost certainly back in the Royals' lineup in the coming days. What that means for Lopez, however, is up in the air.

"I'm not really sure," Lopez said during Royals batting practice Tuesday. "That's up to (manager Mike Matheny). But I'll be ready whether I go back to second or wherever he needs me, so I'll be ready."

A glimpse of Matheny's plans for Lopez were evident in the brief stretch this season that Mondesi was healthy. From Mondesi's regular-season debut (May 25) to his tweaked hamstring, he started all seven games at shortstop. Lopez, meanwhile, played in just four of the games in that time frame, starting once at second base against Tampa Bay on May 26.

Mondesi was in the on-deck circle to be a pinch-hitter for Lopez in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday, but Michael A. Taylor struck out swinging after a 12-pitch at-bat to end the game before Mondesi was able to get to the plate. Matheny felt Mondesi responded well in pregame and had him activated after right-handed pitcher Roland Bolaños was put on the 10-day IL for a right flexor strain.

"When we got the word on Bolaños ... we knew," Matheny said. "Once the spot opened up with Bolaños it made sense to give us an opportunity to bring Mondi in ... just in case we got down to the end and we needed his bat more than we needed his legs."

Lopez's value primarily comes from the defensive end: his Gold Glove nomination at second base last season is a testament to that. Flexibility in the infield at either second, where he's played the majority of his games in the majors, or at shortstop, where he said he played "his whole life" up until Double-A, adds to his usefulness within Matheny's system.

Lopez has 131 career appearances at second base, but only two of which have came this season. Well over half of his 95 career appearances of shortstop, meanwhile, have came this season thanks to Mondesi's absence. It's safe to say the switch has gone well: Lopez's .978 fielding percentage at shortstop this season is fourth in the AL.

"When Mondi went down, I just had to slide over and do what was best for the team," Lopez said. "At shortstop, there's not much room for error. You got to be clean, you got to be crisp. If you bobble the ball, the majority of the time they're going to be safe at first. (There's a) little bit less room for error at short."

But the offensive struggles that led to his preseason demotion haven't been completely resolved. Lopez exited Tuesday with a .235 average this year, better than his 2020 average of .201 and worse than a .240 average in his 2019 debut season.

His day at the plate Tuesday — 2 for 3 with a run and RBI — was strong, but by no means a commonality in his game. It was only the sixth time in 53 starts this season that he'd managed multiple hits and the first time he'd done so since May 13. He's one cog in a Royals offense that's been poor in a losing run of 10 of 11 games, scoring over four runs just once in that stretch — coincidentally, the only win, a 6-1 triumph at Oakland last Thursday.

With Lopez's role likely reduced again as Mondesi returns, the incoming times he'll be up to the plate are likely few and far between. Where he goes in the Royals' lineup otherwise remains to be seen.

"Hitting is definitely contagious. Good baseball is contagious," Lopez said. "You guys saw it early on in the year, everything seemed to be clicking. People were picking up each other one through nine. Right now, we're kind of just hitting that lull. We can't really hang our heads, we can't feel sorry for ourselves."