Canaan Smith-Njigba can smile again.
The Pittsburgh Pirates rookie outfielder is healthy. The scaphoid bone in his right wrist that he broke last season was deemed fully healed in December.
Smith-Njigba has been working out at the Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., since early last month as he prepares for spring training.
“I’m ready to go,” Smith-Njigba said last weekend while taking part in a season ticket holder event at PNC Park.
Smith-Njigba was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis and made his major league debut last June 14 in a game against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Two days later, he was injured in a collision with center fielder Bryan Reynolds while chasing a fly ball, also at Busch Stadium, and needed season-ending surgery.
“I was rolling,” Smith-Njigba said. “I was getting on base every day. I was helping the team and I was just really good and very comfortable. Then I broke my bone in my wrist. First bone I ever broke ever in my life. Mentally, I was a little down because I made it to my childhood dream and to be hurt very early on was a bummer.”
In his very small three-game sample size in the major leagues, Smith-Njigba went 1 for 5 with a double and a walk.
“I saw the ball (well),” Smith-Njigba said. “The backdrop was really good, better than Triple-A. It was the big leagues. You know, it’s the show, man. It’s the show, from the staff to everything. It’s indescribable. I don’t even know how to really explain it. What more could you want?”
Well, taking longer than three days before having your dream derailed could be one wish.
However, Smith-Njigba did not take a long time to feel sorry for himself. Instead, the 23-year-old knew he had to stay patient and let the rehab process play out.
And it was a slow process.
“Getting back to the basics of throwing. I couldn’t throw for a couple months,” Smith-Njigba said. “I couldn’t pick up a bat. For a couple of months, I just couldn’t do a lot of anything skills-wise. It was tough. I worked out, stayed in shape and got ahead there. But I just couldn’t really use my skills.”
In 52 games with Indianapolis last season, Smith-Njigba batted .277/.387/.408 with one home run and eight stolen bases.
The .387 on-base percentage matches Smith-Njigba’s career mark in five minor league seasons. The left-handed hitter’s ability to reach base was one reason the Pirates wanted him as a part of a four-prospect package from the New York Yankees in a trade for Jameson Taillon during the 2020-21 offseason.
The Pirates will likely have Smith-Njigba begin the upcoming season at Indianapolis to make up for the development time he lost last year. Baseball America ranks him as the organization’s No. 19 prospect.
Yet he yearns to return to the major leagues after getting that 72-hour taste in 2022. Having his dream abruptly stopped has only grown Smith-Njigba’s appreciation for baseball.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” he said. “Being back in that locker room, I had to take a second like, ‘Man, dreams really do come true.’ It only makes me grind even more. I really felt like it showed a lot before I got hurt.”