But days before the start of the season, Lopez was optioned to Triple-A Omaha, and Whit Merrifield was moved from the outfield to the second base. Then, on the final day of camp, Mondesi was injured.
And so, Lopez was brought back and started the season at shortstop.
The Royals’ middle infielders have been the team’s top two hitters and despite the position changes, Lopez and Merrifield have become the team’s best defensive players as well.
ACTA Sports determined the best defensive players in Major League Baseball by runs saved in the month of July, and new Yankees outfielder Joey Gallo ranked first (12). Second on the list: Merrifield with seven runs saved. Lopez tied for third with six runs saved.
“We don’t give Defensive Player of the Month to units, but if we did this month, the Royals double play combination of second baseman Whit Merrifield and shortstop Nicky Lopez may have won it,” ACTA Sports’ Mark Simon wrote.
“This was impressive given that Merrifield and Lopez both started the month with negative runs saved totals this season. Merrifield is now in contention for the MLB lead at second base. He has nine runs saved there (to go along with minus-two in right field), which ranks second to Marcus Semien’s 11.”
The position changes could be the reason for the slow start defensively.
“It needs to be noted ... both of them in positions that they didn’t necessarily perceive themselves being in, nor did they train for those positions all winter long — or spring — but they were able to make that transition way smoother than what it actually should be,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “It is not as easy as they’re making it look, and it’s been a lot of work and a lot of effort. But there’s just a lot of natural athleticism that allows them to be as versatile as they are.”
FanGraphs’ defensive metrics show Lopez is leading all American League shortstops in Defensive Runs Above Average (7) this season. The Astros’ Carlos Correa is second (6.1).
Merrifield (4.9) trails only Semien (6.1) in that category.
“There’s no question we’ve seen radical improvement with some of the things Whit’s been able to do and some of the balls he’s getting to, some of the plays he’s making, and I always want to talk about how much he’s improved turning double plays,” Matheny said.
“Nicky has just been incredible all season long. We didn’t really know exactly what this was going to look like for him or how much you would even be used at shortstop, and this whole season this guy’s been a pleasure to watch at shortstop and has been such a huge lift for our club defensively.
“Both sides of the ball actually, but on the defensive side, he’s going to be in conversations about a Gold Glove, and man, at that position to be in that conversation is a pretty impressive statement.”
Lopez was a Gold Glove finalist a year ago at second base, so to be in the conversation at another position a year later is a rare feat.
Merrifield spent much of the offseason building up arm strength to help with throws he thought he’d be making from right field. Instead, he has started just 15 games in the outfield, while making 93 starts at second base.
Matheny says the time spent building arm strength has helped in a variety of ways, including on double plays. The Royals have turned 103 this season, which is second only to the Boston Red Sox (106).
“His working on that arm strength is helping those turns and as much as we’re playing the shift, too. He’s made some long throws from deep behind second base, or deep end into the shift on the pull side the lefties,” Matheny said.
“The improvement that he’s made this year, mechanically and then you could just see confidence-wise, he can’t wait to get one of those opportunities,” Matheny added. “He’s making such great transfers and really good carry on the ball, and we’re always tracking the times too, and it is really quick.
“The combination between what Nicky’s able to do and what Whit’s doing on the backside, it’s been as good as any I’ve seen here.”