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Pirates All 40: Can Canaan Smith-Njigba Earn An Outfield Spot?



Pittsburgh Pirates, Canaan Smith-Njigba

This is one in a series of stories breaking down members of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 40-man roster.

Pirates’ outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba has had an up-and-down journey over the past two seasons as he looks to establish himself as an everyday MLB player.

The stocky outfielder—Smith-Njigba stands 6 feet tall and tips the scale at 230 pounds—broke his wrist a mere two days after making his big league debut in 2022, ending his first audition before it even really began. After rebounding with a strong performance in Spring Training the following year, Smith-Njigba made the Pirates’ opening day roster. He couldn’t stick around long, though, as the Pirates sent him back down to Triple-A Indianapolis after struggling to a .125 batting average and just one extra base hit in 14 games.

Smith-Njigba hails from a family of extraordinary athletic talent as his younger brother, Jaxon, was a first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks at wide receiver this past season. The New York Yankees selected the elder Smith-Njigba out of high school in the fourth round of the 2017 MLB Draft, then sent him to Pittsburgh as part of the Jameson Taillon trade.

Canaan Smith-Njigba: Inside the Numbers

While Smith-Njigba hits the ball hard—he posted an 11.8 barrel rate during his time in the majors last season, solidly in the upper third of the league—those hard hits seldom turn into home runs. That’s a longstanding trend through his professional career: Smith-Njigba’s 15 home runs in 105 games with Triple-A Indianapolis in 2023 is the high water mark of his career from a power perspective, but not the type of production one expects out of a power hitter.

Smith-Njigba showed an ability to draw walks during his time in Pittsburgh, taking a free pass 11.1 percent of the time he stepped to the plate, but that wasn’t because of otherworldly patience or an excellent eye: he still struck out nearly 50 percent of the time.

The 24-year-old left-hander slashed a respectable .280/.366/.473 after heading to Indianapolis last season. Part of Smith-Njigba’s problem in the box during his time within the Pirates’ organization is that he hits the ball into the ground, drastically limiting his potential for power. He logged a jaw-dropping 3.16 groundout to airout ratio in 2021, before marks of 1.48 and 1.88 in each of the previous two years.

That isn’t an impossible issue to fix—look no farther than Ke’Bryan Hayes as an example—but it’ll limit his potential dramatically until he does. Similarly, his ceiling in the outfield is limited by poor speed and arm strength: if anywhere, excelling at the plate is what could help Smith-Njigba secure a spot with the Pirates moving forward.

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