After having his major league debut cut short due to injury, Canaan Smith-Njigba is a player Pittsburgh Pirates fans should monitor in 2023
When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees ahead of the 2021 season they received four players in return. While Roansy Contreras highlighted the trade, another player involved in the trade who was highly thought of was outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba.
Smith-Njigba was selected by the Yankees with the 122nd overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. The left-handed hitting outfielder was drafted out of Rockwall-Heath High School in Heath, Texas, and chose to sign with the Yankees over his commitment to play collegiate at Arkansas. Smith-Njigba comes from an athletic family, as he is the brother of star Ohio State, and soon to be NFL, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
After joining the Pirate organization Smith-Njigba spent the majority of the 2021 season at Double-A Altoona. With the Curve, Smith-Njigba hit for a .274/.398/.406 slash line with a 127 wRC+ in 266 plate appearances. Smith-Njigba's best trait was his ability to get on base, as he drew walks at a borderline elite rate of 16.9%.
This led to him earning a late season promotion to the Triple-A level. While he struggled with the Indianapolis Indians, Smith-Njigba was back at Indianapolis to begin the 2022 season. Smith-Njigba hit for a .277/.387/.408 slash line with a 118 wRC+, 15.1% walk rate, and a 23.9% strikeout rate in 218 PAs at Triple-A.
Smith-Njigba's performance at Triple-A led to him being promoted to the majors for the first time. With the Pittsburgh Pirates, it appeared Smith-Njigba was going to get an opportunity to play regularly. Between the corner outfield positions and designated hitter there were plenty of at-bats to go around.
Unfortunately, Smith-Njigba was limited to just 7 PAs in the majors. In his 7 PAs he walked once, was hit by a pitch, did not strike out, and hit a double for his first MLB hit. On June 17th, he was placed on the 60-day injured list due to a fractured wrist. This injury would cost Smith-Njigba the remainder of the 2022 season.
Without this injury, Smith-Njigba's outlook entering 2023 could be much different. There is a real possibility he would have performed at a level that could have solidified a spot on the team's major league level.
When the 2023 season begins Smith-Njigba will likely begin the season with Triple-A Indy. However, if Bryan Reynolds is traded that could potentially open up a spot for Smith-Njigba on the team's Opening Day roster.
As the season goes on opportunities will present themselves in the majors for Smith-Njiba. Injuries and ineffectiveness will happen. That's baseball, it is unavoidable.
The biggest thing Smith-Njigba will need to improve on in 2023 is hitting less ground balls. He had a 52.8% ground ball rate at Triple-A last season, and a 66.7% ground ball rate at Triple-A in 2021. Also in 2021, he posted a 65.3% ground ball rate at Double-A.
FanGraphs give Smith-Njigba a future value raw power grade of 60. There is plenty of ability there for Smith-Njigba to hit for increased power, but the biggest aspect to that is hitting less ground balls. If he can do that in 2023, he can take a huge step forward as a hitter.
It should be noted that Smith-Njigba is still just 23-years-old. So, there is plenty of reason to believe there is still growth in his as a hitter. If he can make the adjustments needed to hit less ground balls in 2023, then Smith-Njigba could find himself working toward a role with the Pittsburgh Pirates.