Smith-Njigba secures roster spot; Oviedo cracks rotation

March 28th, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Perhaps the most exciting battle in Pirates camp this spring came down to the final days, but at the end, won the right to head north with the team following Tuesday’s Grapefruit League finale.

Utility man Ji Hwan Bae and backup catcher will also open the year with Pittsburgh, which kicks off its 2023 campaign at Great American Ball Park against the Reds on Thursday. The team has until noon ET Thursday to finalize its 26-man roster.

“I embraced that moment, and now I’m here, ready to get on the bus to go to Cincy,” said Smith-Njigba, who smashed a three-run homer in the sixth inning of Pittsburgh’s 7-5 loss against the Twins at LECOM Park. “... I was kind of like, ‘The time is now.’ I didn’t get too high, I didn’t get too low, I just took it as like, ‘I’m going back to the big leagues.’ My family was very excited, though, so they did all the [celebrating] for me.”

The 23-year-old -- who’ll be the fourth outfielder alongside starters , and this season -- said he learned he’d made the Pirates’ final cut following Monday’s road game against the Twins.

The news capped a standout spring for Smith-Njigba, who slashed .333/.407/.583 with three home runs, 14 RBIs, three doubles and two steals in 20 games, showcasing a power fans might have seen in Pittsburgh last summer had a broken right wrist in June not ended his debut season after just three MLB games.

“He was very excited,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He’s in a good spot, had good at-bats today and we’re excited for him. He did a really, really good job this spring.”

Smith-Njigba and were neck-and-neck in a heated battle for the fourth outfielder spot for most of spring. Swaggerty’s hot start at the plate and known defensive prowess in center gave him an early edge before the Pirates optioned Swaggerty to Triple-A Indianapolis on Friday.

Shelton reasoned that since Swaggerty has missed nearly two full seasons (2020 due to COVID-19 and most of ’21 due to injury), the club’s No. 22 prospect per MLB Pipeline needed consistent at-bats to start the season -- and to keep his bat hot -- that just weren’t available with Pittsburgh right now.

Smith-Njigba, meanwhile, came on hot and never cooled. He stroked a two-run single during his first spring start on Feb. 28 against the Orioles, boosted his average above .300 on March 20 during a three-hit day against the Red Sox and pushed it to a spring-best .326 with another three-hit game against the Twins on Monday.

Smith-Njigba wrapped his spring with the team lead in RBIs (14) and hits (16), and he was tied for second with three homers. (Well, four -- and the team lead -- if we count the home run he hit against the O’s that turned into a single after he passed Swaggerty on the basepaths.)

Bae was another roster revelation on Tuesday, but that result was all but expected as Bae provides a left-handed bat with which to platoon at second base and also has outfield experience.

That leaves Delay, who beat out in the backup catcher competition. With their bats and Major League service time being about equal, Heineman appeared to be the better defender on paper, but Delay had the edge, Shelton said, due to some intangibles as well.

“We thought Jason had a good camp in terms of the way he handled our pitching staff [and] the way he receives the ball,” Shelton added.

Oviedo cracks rotation
pitched Tuesday’s finale with a little extra pep, having found out Sunday that he had snagged the fifth rotation spot. His excitement showed, as he fanned seven and allowed two runs on six hits over five innings.

“I’m super excited. I have no words, to be honest. It was just a great feeling in that moment,” said Oviedo of his chat with Shelton during which he learned the news.

The Pirates have not yet made a formal announcement, but is likely to bound for the IL with right elbow/forearm discomfort after he was scratched from Monday’s start. That opened the door for Oviedo, a swingman who’s impressed Pittsburgh since landing with the team in the Jose Quintana trade with the Cardinals on Aug. 1.