My latest article over at Baseball America looks at outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba, who was one of four prospects the Pirates acquired from the Yankees for Jameson Taillon.
I didn’t get to see much of Smith-Njigba during my trip through the system, as he was in the final days of his rehab work, recovering from a right thigh injury. In the limited views I had, he appeared to be working hard to get back. In my conversation with him, and talking with his coaches, he comes across as a confident leader.
“He’s going to be really good,” Altoona manager Miguel Perez said of Smith-Njigba. “He’s another leader. He’s another guy who is going to have a lot of followers. He knows that, and he’s going to take that seriously. On the field, he’s going to play hard for you every day.
When we had him active, you could tell how the team felt of his energy and leadership.”
What I liked about Smith-Njigba’s confidence was his offseason plan, which I wrote about at BA. Specifically, there was this comment:
“I’m going to train like I’m going to the big leagues next year,” Smith-Njigba said.
The Pirates could use the outfield help in the big leagues.
— Tim Williams (@TimWilliamsPBN) September 9, 2021
Smith-Njigba starts with his hands around his shoulder, with a stance that starts open, before closing with a leg kick load, followed by a smooth swing toward the ball. He’s got a thick frame with the potential to generate easy power. That hasn’t translated to games, with a .135 ISO this year.
On the season, Smith-Njigba has an .808 OPS, which is driven by a .398 OBP. He describes his bat, and ability to get on base, as the strength of his game.
“Definitely what I can do in the box,” Smith-Njigba said of his best ability. “My eye, getting on base for my teammates to drive me in, just doing my job, being gritty out there, stealing bases, playing good [defense].”
Altoona manager Miguel Perez describes Smith-Njigba’s plate discipline as “off the charts.”
“At the plate, he’s outstanding with his discipline,” Perez said. “He’s got a good idea in power, how to drive the ball opposite way.”
Smith-Njigba has been working with Altoona hitting coach David Newhan this year on driving the ball the opposite way, and hitting with more authority. His spray chart coming into the year shows a tendency for power to the pull side, but still an ability to hit to all fields.
“I’m happy with where I’m at, but I’ve still got a long way to go, especially missing a full year of baseball,” Smith-Njigba said of his offense. “I’m happy that I came out and have been playing well. I know I have a long way to go. There’s so much more I can achieve and accomplish. I just can’t wait until I get to grab those things.”
Smith-Njigba was drafted by the Yankees in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. He was a catcher throughout high school, but was moved to the outfield in pro ball. His athletic ability made the transition possible, and he continues to work on the new position.
“I think this is my best year defensively,” Smith-Njigba said. “I caught my whole life, and I’ve been in the outfield only in pro ball. I feel really good out there. I know they’re very pleased with me in the outfield. I’m just happy that each and every day I’m getting better and better to be a complete player.”
The Pirates have had Smith-Njigba primarily in left field this year in Altoona, with one game in right field. He had more of an even split in his 2017 debut, but has since played mostly left field.
Smith-Njigba has the range to handle left field in PNC Park. His bat would benefit from a power boost at the corners, but he should be able to stick as a starting option with his elite on-base skills.
Smith-Njigba has the upside to be a starting outfielder in the majors, and has the opportunity. The Pirates have two long-term spots open in their MLB outfield, and Smith-Njigba is a candidate, with the chance for average tools across the board, led by his hit tool and ability to get on base.
“He’s going to run, he’s going to steal bases. His arm is good, his jumps off the bat,” Perez said. “He’s a clubhouse guy and team player.”
This is the first season in the system for Smith-Njigba, and he’s part of a talented group of outfielders in Altoona that includes breakout prospect Matt Fraizer, new trade acquisition Jack Suwinski, and fellow 2017 prep draft pick Cal Mitchell. The Pirates will hope that at least one of them can emerge as a starter, and the group should start getting chances in 2022.
“I’m just surrounding by a great group of talent,” Smith-Njigba said. “The coaches here in Altoona, it’s been amazing just off the fact that they’ve been there, they’ve been in the league. They’re really good mentors and they’re guiding us. Each and every day I’m getting better and better, and my routines are getting better and better. I’m really coming along. I feel like the player I need to be for years to come.