Free-agent Pujols surprisingly makes Florida his first stop

MIAMI (AP) — Albert Pujols’ free-agent tour is off to a surprising start: The three-time NL MVP visited the Florida Marlins.

Pujols had lunch Friday with Marlins officials and checked out the team’s new ballpark, a person familiar with the discussions said.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team hadn’t commented publicly.

It was unknown whether the notoriously thrifty franchise made a contract offer before Pujols departed.

Free agents Jose Reyes and left-hander Mark Buehrle also took ballpark tours during visits earlier this week.

The 31-year-old Pujols is a free agent for the first time after spending his first 11 major league seasons with St. Louis.

Pujols and the Cardinals didn’t discuss a contract extension during the season, which ended with a World Series title, but he hasn’t ruled out remaining in St. Louis.

“We’re just going to see where God takes us,” Pujols said last week.

The slugger’s visit with the Marlins came only hours before the franchise officially changed its name to the Miami Marlins during an event at the team’s new ballpark near downtown.

The Marlins 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. New manager Ozzie Guillen is expected to help the Marlins’ sales pitch.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and a contingent of team officials visited the Dominican Republic on Thursday to watch a private workout by highly regarded Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

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.

The Cardinals exercised a $16 million option on Pujols’ 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.

Pujols’ numbers in nearly every major offensive category are on a three-year decline, but he remains among the game’s elite players.

He hit 37 home runs this year, running the 30-homer streak to 11 years, and batted .299 with 99 RBI.

Pujols also led the Cardinals’ improbable late-season surge and became only the third player to hit three home runs in a World Series game, pulling off the feat in third game of the series.

When the Marlins open their new ballpark in April, the first game happens to be against the Cardinals.

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