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Marlins aim to reduce payroll, find free-agent deals

MIAMI -- Signing high-priced free agents generated plenty of attention and raised expectations for the Miami Marlins in 2012. Unfortunately for the club, spending top dollar didn't translate into wins.

Despite boasting a team-record $95 million payroll, the Marlins finished last in the National League East for the second straight season. The down year resulted in manager Ozzie Guillen being dismissed.

The Marlins learned the hard way that pumping up the payroll alone isn't the formula for success. So the team will take a different approach in 2013 as it strives to restructure its now more youthful roster.

If need be, the Marlins will spend on free agents, but they plan on a more fiscally responsible approach this offseason.

A year ago, the Marlins were highly active, signing Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell for a combined $191 million. Reyes and Buehrle were solid, but Bell was disappointing. Bell recently was dealt to the D-backs for third base prospect Yordy Cabrera as the Marlins opted to move in another direction.

The trade took the Marlins off the hook for $13 million of the remaining $21 million on Bell's contract.

In midseason, Miami also shed some of its financial burden by trading Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Randy Choate.

Some more salary will be coming off the books, as the team won't likely bring back free agents Juan Carlos Oviedo and Carlos Zambrano.

First baseman Carlos Lee also will be heading for free agency. There is a chance he will return, but that isn't automatic. Austin Kearns and Chad Gaudin round out the Marlins heading for free agency.

The Marlins do have four players eligible for arbitration: Emilio Bonifacio, Ryan Webb, Brett Hayes and Chris Coghlan. Webb and Hayes are non-tender possibilities, while Bonifacio made $2.2 million last year, which means his salary is expected to rise. Coghlan spent so much time in Triple-A that it is unclear if he is part of the plans.

With so much uncertainty and holes to fill, the Marlins once again are expected to have an active offseason. They just aren't likely to spend as much as a year ago.

Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.

Contract issues:
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts web site, the Marlins already have $57.475 million in payroll obligations locked up in eight players for next year. Of that total, $38.425 million is earmarked for four starting pitchers -- Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Buehrle and Jacob Turner. Johnson's $13.75 million makes him the team's highest paid player in '13.

Key free agents: Carlos Lee, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Carlos Zambrano.

Areas of need:
Third base: Trading Ramirez in late July relieved Miami of paying about $39 million that was remaining on the former All-Star's contract through 2014. It also opened a big hole at third base.

The Marlins' search became more open when they traded Matt Dominguez, their first-round pick in 2007, to the Astros on July 4 as part of the Lee deal.

Third base is now the top priority.

Prospect Zack Cox, acquired from the Cardinals for Edward Mujica in July, will get a look in Spring Training. And Cabrera was obtained from the D-backs for Bell. But the 22-year-old Cabrera is expected to open the season at Double-A Jacksonville.

Greg Dobbs is an option, but the veteran is best used coming off the bench.

Bullpen: Steve Cishek closed the second half of the season, and he is the frontrunner now that Bell has been dealt to Arizona. Aside from Cishek, the rest of the bullpen is unsettled. Bell had been working mostly in the eighth inning. Now that setup spot is up in the air. Lefty Mike Dunn had his struggles, and Miami will be looking for other left-handed options.

It's unlikely the Marlins will spend top dollar on relievers, at least not contracts that rival the three-year, $27 million deal Bell signed a year ago. But the club will have to allocate enough financial resources to make the 'pen more dependable.

Outfield speed: With so much space in the outfield at Marlins Park, it increases the need for speed. Most likely Logan Morrison will be moved to first base, so the club will be looking for a left fielder. Justin Ruggiano is a candidate to platoon, if the Marlins don't find an everyday option.

Bonifacio projects to be in center field, but there is a chance he could open at second base. If the team moves in that direction, then a speedster in center field would immediately become a priority, as much as third base.

First base: The door is open for Lee to sign as a free agent, but the more likely scenario is that Morrison will be moved to first. Health, of course, is an issue with Morrison, who underwent right knee surgery in September. It was his second procedure to the same knee in two years.

Second base: Donovan Solano did a solid job taking over in the second half, after Infante was traded and Bonifacio was injured. The question the team has is whether Solano is an everyday player, or if he is best suited for a utility role? There also is a chance Bonifacio moves back to second.

Marlins 2013 projected payroll:
Barring a change of strategy, the Marlins are not expected to match or exceed their club record-setting salary figure from '12. The team is trimming back, and the projection is that payroll will be in the neighborhood of $80-85 million. Still, there is flexibility, if the club feels it needs to top that figure in order to sign players who will make them more competitive.

Carlos Lee, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Carlos Zambrano