A surprising visit byÂ Albert PujolsÂ sent a message: The Miami Marlins will be a much different franchise than theÂ Florida Marlins. Â Pujols picked an unlikely locale to begin his free-agent tour Friday when he was courted in Miami by the Marlins, only hours before they officially changed their name during a ceremony at their new ballpark. Pujols had lunch with team officials, checked out the stadium and received a contract offer. Â Read more after the jump.
The notoriously thrifty franchise, suddenly in the mood for a spending spree, declined to disclose details of the contract proposal. Free agentsÂ Jose ReyesÂ and left-handerÂ Mark BuehrleÂ also received offers after taking ballpark tours earlier this week.
The 31-year-old Pujols, a three-time NL MVP, is a free agent for the first time after spending his first 11 major league seasons with St. Louis. Pujols and the Cardinals didnâ€™t discuss a contract extension during the season, which ended with a World Series title, but he hasnâ€™t ruled out remaining in St. Louis.
â€œWeâ€™re just going to see where God takes us,â€ Pujols said last week.
It could be Miami, now that the Marlins have become aggressive free-agent shoppers. They expect crowds of more than 30,000 nightly next season, meaning a revenue increase that will allow the frugal franchise to be more active in free agency.
Loria and a contingent of team officials even visited the Dominican Republic on Thursday to watch a private workout by highly regarded Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
â€œWeâ€™re looking at everyone,â€ Loria said. â€œWe want to make this team as special as we can. We would be foolish not to entertain the possibility of some of these players. Itâ€™s just one of those things that mean youâ€™re going forward. Weâ€™ve had our hands tied for a long time. With this new stadium we want to step into a new light.â€
New manager Ozzie Guillen is expected to help recruiting efforts.
â€œMiami is a magnetâ€”the city, the manager, the new ballpark, the players we have,â€ Loria said. â€œWe have a terrific core here. All of it put together is the magnet.â€
The Marlins are expected to increase their payroll from $57 million this year to at least $80 million in 2012. Signing Pujols would likely mean spending even more.
Marlins president David Samson made it sound unlikely that the team would be willing to pay all three veterans theyâ€™re courting if Pujols, Reyes and Buehrle accept offers.
â€œItâ€™s a problem we never suspected could happen,â€ Samson said. â€œIt didnâ€™t even occur to me. We have a first choice, a 1A and a 1B after 1. This week did not happen by accident. We knew who we wanted to see, and when we wanted to see them.â€
Pujols would be the big prize. The Cardinals exercised a $16 million option on his contract after last season. The slugger rejected a multiyear extension that included a small percentage of the franchise during the winter, and cut off negotiations on the first day of spring training.
Pujolsâ€™ numbers in nearly every major offensive category are on a three-year decline, but he remains among the gameâ€™s elite players. He hit 37 home runs this year, running the 30-homer streak to 11 years, and batted .299 with 99 RBIs. He led the Cardinalsâ€™ improbable late-season surge and became only the third player to hit three home runs in a World Series game.
Loria said the meeting with Pujols went well.
â€œHeâ€™s terrific,â€ Loria said. â€œI can only tell you that he loved the stadium, he liked being here, he liked the flavor of Miami. Weâ€™re hopeful some of these deals will happen.â€