With both Brian Roberts and Alexi Casilla hitting free agency following the 2013 season, the Orioles are facing a decision at second base to kick off the 2014 campaign. They can opt for an in-house option (principally Ryan Flaherty or Jonathan Schoop), they can pursue a trade, or they can hit the free agent market. But with payroll space limited by all of the team's arbitration raises, who might the team pursue? You can see a full list of free agents here, but I'll only address the ones that have been credibly linked to the Orioles in the media, or that I consider legitimate options for the team. Sound off in the comments if you like one of the options I didn't address.
2013: .314/.383/.516, 27 HR, 7.6 WAR
I'm getting this out of the way early because various bored, uninformed or misinformed reporters have tied the Orioles to Robinson Cano's free agency. Cano is the best free agent second baseman on the market this offseason. Some team is going to give Cano too many dollars and/or too many years for his services. That team will almost certainly be the Yankees, and it even more certainly will not be the Orioles. The contract that Cano will be given is the kind of contract that can sink a mid-market team like the Orioles. Dan Duquette knows this. Even I know this. The Orioles will not sign Robinson Cano.
2013: .270/.323/.351, 6 HR, 3.0 WAR
I toyed with leaving Mark Ellis off this list, but I've heard his name thrown around in Orioles-related chatter. Ellis is the prototypical light-hitting, defensively adept middle infielder. He's also 36. Even though he'd be cheap, it's hard to see what he'd bring to the table that Ryan Flaherty wouldn't, unless the Orioles are leery of Flaherty's total offensive black hole during the first month of 2013. I'd be shocked and a little disappointed to see the Orioles pick up Ellis this offseason, even if he wouldn't break the bank.
2013: .248/.312/.392, 8 HR, 0.7 WAR
Brian Roberts has been an Oriole for his entire career. He played with Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson when he broke into the majors in 2001. Orioles fans have a soft spot in their hearts for Roberts. And yet, Roberts is 36 years old. A litany of injuries have prevented him from playing a full season since 2009. His range in the field and speed on the basepaths were clearly diminished in 2013 even as he did play the second half mostly healthy and still showed a little life in his bat. The team and Roberts have both been publicly noncommittal about the possibility of him coming back in 2014 so far. Re-signing him as a Plan A, with Flaherty and Schoop in the wings as reserves/defensive replacements/spot starters might not be the worst plan in the world, and it would certainly play well with the fans. But if I'm being honest, if Roberts were a free agent who had never played with the Orioles before, I'd be leery of signing him -- and isn't that kind of the viewpoint a good GM should take in evaluating a free agent?
2013: .318/.345/.450, 10 HR, 2.4 WAR
Omar Infante had himself a nice little 2013, and that's exactly what makes me nervous. Infante has always been a steady defender -- nothing too flashy, but perfectly adequate, but his bat has been all over the place, and he posted a career high in OPS in 2013. Those numbers have led to a general consensus that it will take a two- or three-year deal for a team to bring in Infante. Signing Infante almost certainly wouldn't be a disaster -- at worst, he'd be a steady replacement-level second baseman, which isn't terrible, but once again, isn't a definite upgrade over Flaherty. There's always a chance that 2013 Infante is the real Infante, but I don't need to see the Orioles hand him three years just on that chance.
2013: .235/.305/.410, 16 HR, 1.3 WAR
Spoiler alert: I'm a big advocate of the Orioles signing Kelly Johnson. Why? After Johnson had a bit of a down year with the Rays, he can probably be had on an inexpensive one-year deal. And in spite of my description of Johnson's 2013 as a "down year," he outperformed the Orioles' 2013 combined second-base totals with relative ease. Lastly, Johnson's versatility would allow him to open the season at third base in place of Manny Machado, or platoon with Nate McLouth in left field (even though Johnson is also a lefty, he normally hits lefties better than McLouth). The Orioles can solidify a weak spot in their lineup with a cheap known quantity, without blocking Schoop in the long term, and they can pick up a little versatility on their bench. And if you view 2013 as Johnson's floor, which is a reasonable view to take, you can know that the team's offense should improve at least marginally with him in it.