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Rob Refsnyder taking reps at third base highlights Chase Headley's question marks

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Brian Cashman's announcement that the Yankees will give Rob Refsnyder a chance to play third base in spring training indicates a potentially different approach to Chase Headley's playing time in 2016.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Early Thursday morning Brian Cashman announced to reporters what had been speculated for the past several days: Rob Refsnyder will receive reps at third base throughout spring training. Per Jack Curry, Starlin Castro and Refsnyder are being considered as possible third base backups. The announcement should not come as a surprise to Yankees fans, whose team has perhaps the most interesting and fragile third base situation in baseball, and it creates an additional storyline to follow throughout the next month.

Via The Official Site of the New York Yankees, last verified February 25th:

So, prior to the decision to entertain Refsnyder backing up the hot corner in 2016, depth at third base consisted of the following baseball players:

1. A player who ESPN calculated to have finished 2015 as the 30th most valuable third baseman in baseball, whose herniated disc causes him to play through pain at least some of the time.
2. A player who has never played third base in his major league career.
3. A 40-year-old who broke down physically as 2015 wore on despite receiving a year off to train and playing exclusively as the designated hitter.

And now:

4. A player who spent his stellar college career in the outfield before an attempted three-season-long conversion to second base that has since been redirected due to the acquisition of a young, more successful player at the position.

Obviously the precariousness of the first three names has had a slow-burning impact on Cashman throughout the offseason. It has been widely assumed since Castro's acquisition in early December that he would likely backup Headley in 2016 with Rodriguez providing only emergency support. Despite his total lack of third base experience, little concern has been raised regarding Castro's transition to the position. After all, he transitioned gracefully to second base just last season, so the collective presumption that he could fake it 'til he makes it at third is not without merit.

Disregarding the notion that Rodriguez was ever expected to play any third base this season, Refsnyder's second positional shift in the last three seasons seems to indicate that the Yankees expect Chase Headley to miss more than the six games he missed in 2015. Headley was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his spine in 2014.

The potential counterargument is that the Yankees fear Headley's defensive issues last season amount to the yips, which Headley has categorically denied and remains an unlikely explanation. Headley is almost universally expected to bounce back this season both offensively and defensively. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS expects a wOBA of .321, which is one thousandth of a point from Brian McCann's expected performance, and it predicts Headley will be worth a total of about 2.7 wins above replacement.

After coupling Cashman's early Thursday announcement with the recent report that the Yankees tried to sign Juan Uribe to a minor league deal, one can reasonably glean that the Yankees plan to take a more proactive approach to resting Headley. This article from Joel Sherman contains a quote from hitting coach Alan Cockrell wherein he indicates Headley may have spent at least a portion of his 2015 playing through pain. If that assertion is true and his discomfort had anything to do with his struggles on the field, Headley cannot afford another 156 game semi-successful season and neither can the Yankees.

Baseball-Reference predicts a drop in plate appearances by about 70 from last season while ZiPS predicts a drop of about 60. Both predictions place more stock in Headley's excellent health last season than they do to the painful nature of his condition and its potential effects on his performance.

Based on Brian Cashman's recent attempt to acquire a backup third baseman and his decision to press publicly for a look at Refsnyder in that role, it may be safe to take the "under" on Headley's 575 or so predicted plate appearances. Even without an announced injury, the organization will look to spell Headley more often than last season in a similar manner to how they approach most of their more fragile defenders, such as Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner.