DALLAS — Jeffrey Loria watched the news conference from the second row, beaming like a proud parent as Heath Bell talked about his new love for the Miami Marlins and reuniting with Jose Reyes.
Trying to make a quick getaway, the owner was surrounded by reporters in the corridor who wanted to know who else would be migrating to South Florida: Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle?
Instead of trading away their stars, the Marlins have become the biggest player in the off-season market, the riches from their new ballpark a free-agent attraction.
“I want our team to be important,” Loria said Monday as the winter meetings opened. “It’s an energy city, and I think that’s one of the things that brings the players there. They see the energy.”
Bell’s US$27-million, three-year contract was finalized, giving the renamed Marlins an all-star closer.
Reyes’ $106-million, six-year deal is a satisfactory physical from conclusion.
Pujols, who already has toured the new ballpark, would join Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison in the batting order — if the three-time NL MVP is willing to leave the St. Louis Cardinals, the only major league team he’s played for.
“One big hitter?” Loria said out loud, his 2003 World Series ring flashing from his hand.
“Well, I don’t know about that, but there’s a possibility of another player or two we’re looking at.”
Morrison, among others, was wondering.
“Just out of surgery. Everything went well,” he wrote on Twitter after a minor knee operation, adding: “Have we signed Pujols yet??”
On the mound, Wilson or Buehrle could be added to a rotation that includes Josh Johnson (if healthy), Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad.
While the Marlins are being aggressive, traditional big spenders such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are moving cautiously, both with free agents and in the trade market.
“It’s hey, take my older, expensive, over-the-hill guy for your young, better-performing guy,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “Let me think about that and get back to you, buddy.”
Not that he’s acting any differently with opening day four months away.
“I’m sure my ideas are as distasteful as the ones that I’ve received,” he said.
As the four-day swap session began, the first piece of formal business was the annual meeting of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, which elected late Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo. He’ll be inducted in Cooperstown on July 22, along with any players elected by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Jan. 9.
Pujols and Prince Fielder are the big bats on the market, and it remains unclear whether Pujols is willing to leave the World Series champions, where he’s joined Stan Musial as a franchise icon.
“I always use the word hopeful,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “I think it’s presumptive to say that I’m optimistic because we obviously have continuing discussions and have a good dialogue going.”
No longer watching players like Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera getting hooked by other teams, the Marlins now have the bait to attract baseball’s best. They drew a major league-low 1.52 million fans to Sun Life Stadium, also home to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, last season. But Loria expects his team will draw 2.5 million to three million at the new ballpark.
“When you have a ballpark that seats 78,000, there’s no great demand — and in the middle of nowhere in a football-configured stadium,” he said. “But with a ballpark half the size of that and a baseball-only ballpark, you create a different kind of experience and we’ve seen it in our sales already.”
The rest of baseball has taken notice of a team that hopes to overtake Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NL East.
“Good for the Marlins. I’m happy for them, and it’s something, of course, I’d like to see happen for us. But in the meantime, you can’t cry about it,” said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, whose team along with Oakland are the last two trying to get new ballparks.
Calling Reyes an “exciting young man” and Wilson a “very intelligent and very interesting guy,” Loria said he thinks the Marlins can become a consistent winner in their retractable-roof ballpark, not far from downtown Miami.
“With the roster that we have and the things we hope we can do, the outlook is very good,” he said. “I’m not going to make any predictions. But we certainly want to be in position to compete seriously.”
While the Marlins are poaching, other teams want to retain their stars. Texas may want Wilson back after he helped it come within one strike of the team’s first World Series title.
“We basically felt they were going to test the market and we’d circle back to each other,” general manager Jon Daniels said.
The Mets, plunging to losing records in all three seasons at Citi Field and plagued by losses from the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, are cutting payroll from the $140 million range in 2008 and 2009 to about $100 million next year. General manager Sandy Alderson said the team lost $70 million but wouldn’t say whether it was all this year.
“When I took the job, my understanding was the payroll was not at a sustainable level, that it would have to come down somewhat,” he said. “Perhaps it’s had to come down a little more than I would have expected.”
Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to a $6-million, two-year contract with utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. and neared an agreement with pitcher Aaron Harang.