Something’s fishy _ Marlins become big players

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DALLAS (AP) - No more little low-budget Marlins. Miami’s team hopes to become baseball’s Big Fish.

“I want our team to be important,” owner Jeffrey 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.”

Making the first big splashes, the Marlins completed a $27 million, three-year contract with Heath Bell a day after reaching a preliminary agreement on a $106 million, six-year deal with Jose Reyes. Who will be the next big name migrating to South Florida: Albert Pujols? C.J. Wilson? Mark Buehrle?

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.

“This isn’t the old seat-of-the-pants, you know, get drunk in the lobby and write names on a napkin type,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said shortly after arriving at the meetings. “You won’t conduct business that way anymore. They just don’t.”

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 such as 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.

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