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Pirates Are Ignoring Minor Leaguer Who Could Improve Offense

As the Pittsburgh Pirates search for ways to improve, they continue to ignore a possible solution in Canaan Smith-Njigba. The left-handed hitter is a corner outfielder in Triple-A Indianapolis, where he’s hitting .230/.356/.338 as of this writing. Originally, the Pirates acquired him in January 2021 from the New York Yankees as part of the return for Jameson Taillon. The Pirates gave him a brief taste of the majors late in 2022 when he was 1-for-5 in three games. He made the team out of spring training in 2023. However, as Connor Joe’s hot start was becoming harder to disregard, soon there was less playing time for Smith-Njigba. The Bucs sent Smith-Njigba to Triple-A after he hit .125/.216/.219 in just 15 games.

The Pirates designated Smith-Njigba for assignment last January 31, only to see the Seattle Mariners claim him on February 7. Twelve days later, the Pirates reacquired him on a waiver claim. He was in spring training with the Bucs in 2024 but never had a realistic chance to make the team.

Pirates Continue to Ignore Smith-Njigba

With the May 16 trade of Roansy Contreras, Smith-Njigba is the only remaining viable major league piece acquired for Taillon. To general manager Ben Cherington’s credit, he doesn’t award major league roster spots based on making his trades look good. However, with Cherington and owner Bob Nutting stating this year’s goal is contention, and with the Pirates in the wild card hunt, a second look at Smith-Njigba might be in order.

The Pirates offense has been better of late, thanks in part to Nick Gonzales. Ever since he was recalled on May 9, he’s been a hitting machine. He’s hitting .315/.357/.528 with four home runs, 22 RBI, and a 151 OPS+ in 24 games. In their last 14 games, the Pirates have scored 70 runs. Even so, among 15 National League teams, they rank in the bottom third in most of the important offensive categories.

Smith-Njigba isn’t a power hitter, but what the Pirates can’t ignore are his on-base skills. Over seven minor league seasons, his batting line is .273/.380/.421. He hasn’t shown those skills in the major leagues yet. Then again, he’s had only 18 major league games to prove himself. He’s not too bad with his fists, either.

Making Room for Smith-Njigba

Now that Bryan Reynolds has returned to his more familiar left field, Joe and Edward Olivares have shared right field. Both are right-handed hitters. For much of the season, Joe was the only bright spot on offense. He’s hitting .270/.348/.434. However, he may be cooling off a bit. In his last six games, Joe is just 3-for-21. Olivares is hitting .240/.300/.392 but has been better lately. He’s 3-for-11 with two sacrifice flies in his last five games. As one might expect, their platoon splits indicate they hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching. It’s especially noticeable in the case of Olivares. He’s hitting just .233/.294/.300 against righties. Surely there could be room for Smith-Njigba in right field on a platoon basis. If his on-base skills translate, he’d be a good fit at the top of the order.

The next issue would be who to boot off the roster to make room for Smith-Njigba. Pick anyone. Rowdy Tellez is hitting .200/.261/.257, although he’s coming around recently. Michael A. Taylor is hitting .198/.246/.254. Jack Suwinski is hitting .182/.269/.318 despite Tuesday’s heroics. Ji Hwan Bae, now on the injured list, was called up to platoon with Taylor. But he’s just 5-for-24 as a Pirate in 2024. For sure, it’s a small sample size, but Bae has an alarming 25 percent chase rate and hasn’t looked like the answer to anything.

The Last Word

Surely Cherington has been working the phones in an effort to improve the Pirates for the stretch run. However, since MLB expanded the number of postseason teams to 12, there are more buyers than sellers, making it tough for every team to get what they want. In the meantime, if the Pirates cease to ignore Smith-Njigba, they might find that what they want has been right under their noses all along.


Photo Credit: © Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports


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