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“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 3 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.”

Reyes returns to Citi Field when the Marlins visit April 24. He’ll be in their new uniforms with garish colors.

“Well, I was a little surprised they had that much money to burn,” Mets manager Terry Collins said.

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.

Minnesota agreed to a $4.75 million, one-year deal to keep closer Matt Capps, a person familiar with that deal said on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been announced.