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Looking ahead to Marlins offseason; plus Dolphins, Heat and Canes


What we’re hearing as the Marlins approach a pivotal offseason and a move into their new ballpark:

### The payroll ($57 million this season) definitely will be above $70 million and might go to $80 million. Owner Jeffrey Loria hasn’t given his front office an exact figure but the expectation is that it will fall within that range.

The discouraging news is the Marlins have so much money already tied up that even with an $80 million payroll, they would have only about $10 million to spend elsewhere unless they trade, non-tender or do not re-sign  some of their current players --- a strong possibility.

The Marlins have made starting pitching by far their biggest priority (preferably a left-hander). They could add a free agent position player or two, but likely not at huge dollars.

There has no been discussion of trading Hanley Ramirez, and it’s unlikely Ramirez or Josh Johnson would be dealt. But only Mike Stanton is essentially untouchable.

The internal hope would be to sign pitching in free agency and not touch the corps of top young position players. But the free agent class isn’t very deep, and if the Marlins get a great offer (including pitching) for hypothetically, Gaby Sanchez, it likely would be considered.

### A quick primer on the Marlins’ 2012 salary situation: Ramirez ($15 million), Johnson ($13.75 million), Ricky Nolasco ($9 million), John Buck ($6 million) and Randy Choate ($1.5 million) are on the books for $45.2 million. Throw in the low salaries of 11 players under team control (headlined by Stanton, Morrison and Sanchez), and that’s another $5 million, approximately. So that’s $50 million.

If the Marlins keep the 10 players eligible for arbitration, that would be another $20 to $22 million, putting the payroll at or just above $70 million without adding a single player or addressing free agent Omar Infante, who rejected Florida’s initial offer. The Marlins want to keep him at a reasonable rate, perhaps in the $3-$4 million range.

But a few of the arbitration-eligibles might not be retained. At least three are no-brainers to keep: Anibal Sanchez (who could get $6 to $7 million), Emilio Bonifacio (perhaps $1.5 million) and Edward Mujica ($1.5 million or more).

Leo Nunez (34 for 40 on saves) could get $6 million in arbitration, and there are mixed views internally about whether to keep or trade him. “As nervous as you can be at times when Leo comes in the game, he has done a good job,” Marlins executive Larry Beinfest told 790 The Ticket last week, adding that Mujica also “can close” and Ryan Webb “has stuff to close.”

Chris Volstad, still cheap, will be tendered but is a trade candidate. Also eligible: Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop, Brian Sanches, John Baker and Donny Murphy.

### The Marlins are unlikely to be in the mix for the elite free agent pitchers: C.C. Sabathia and Roy Oswalt (if they opt out) and C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, unless Loria creates “special money” for Texas lefty Wilson.

Among cheaper options, the Marlins like Boston lefty Erik Bedard, according to one baseball source who deals with the team’s front office. Pirates lefty Paul Maholm, Yankees right-hander Freddy Garcia and Cardinals right-hander Edwin Jackson (who would be the most costly of these four) are among numerous other possibilities.

They will definitely add one established starter and potentially two depending on how much they spend on the first. It’s not out of the question that Javier Vazquez could return at a lower salary if he eschews retirement.

### Barring a change of heart, the Marlins aren’t expected to be a major bidder for potential Cubs free agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who has a $16 million team option. He is by far the top run-producer available at a position where the Marlins have questions (third base; center field; second base if Infante leaves).

### If the Marlins can re-sign Infante, they could fill third and center with a combination of Bonifacio and either Matt Dominguez or Chris Coghlan.

Bonifacio’s ability to play second, third or center gives the Marlins flexibility. The Marlins still might add a veteran center fielder, with Coco Crisp and Cody Ross topping a weak free agent class, and Endy Chavez among cheaper options.



### The Dolphins’ pass-rush simply must improve Sunday - something the team believes should happen with Jason Taylor’s signing, Jared Odrick’s return from injury and the hiring of assistant coach Bryan Cox as a pass-rush specialist.

Taylor had 33 snaps Monday (many of them passes) but not a single quarterback pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. In his defense, he was hampered by a second-quarter ankle injury, so that game isn’t a good gauge of how much Taylor has left after last year’s five-sack season for the Jets.

Meanwhile, starter Koa Misi played only 25 snaps against New England. But when he gets a chance to rush the quarterback (less frequent now with Taylor on the roster), the Dolphins want to see improvement. He had 2.5 sacks in his first six NFL games, just one in 11 since. “I notice some things I did last year that didn’t help me at all,” Misi said.

### The Dolphins have been giving defensive ends Phillip Merling and Jared Odrick lots of work in the nickel package because they believe each can be skilled pass-rushers. Odrick has a good chance to become one; he had 14.5 sacks at Penn State.

But Merling has only 3.5 sacks in 37 NFL games. It would help if Randy Starks returned to his 2009 form, when he had seven sacks. (He had three last year.)

 ### Why in the world would the Dolphins send Cameron Wake out in pass coverage several times Monday? Because that’s what Mike Nolan’s scheme called for in a few situations. Wake – who had the Dolphins’ only sack against the Patriots - allowed two of the three passes thrown against him to be completed, for 25 yards.

### Right tackle Marc Colombo graded out by far the worst of the Dolphins offensive linemen in Week 1, allowing one sack and four quarterback pressures. And this should irk Dolfans: Bryant McKinnie, whom Miami passed on, was better in the running game and on passing plays for Baltimore (no sacks, one pressure).

### Rookie center Mike Pouncey’s spirits were buoyed when the Patriots’ Albert Haynesworth sought him out after the game to tell him what a good job he does on pass protection.

### Linebacker Kevin Burnett called his disappointing debut “bothersome” and said he and Karlos Dansby – who allowed a combined 70 yards worth of completions Monday - “have to prove” their value as a ballyhooed tandem. Burnett said it’s the job of the inside linebackers (plus the safeties) to get players lined up correctly and “we have to work on that.”

### Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner told us last week what especially impressed him about Chad Henne on Monday was not only "that he made a lot of big-time throws," but also that even "with all the scrunity, he didn't play scared."

### An associate who spent time in owner Stephen Ross’ booth Monday – Alonzo Mourning and minority owner Fergie were among the guests - said Ross was disappointed by the loss but not visibly angry or fed up because of his respect for how good the Patriots are. But Ross wants results and won’t be so understanding about losses to lesser teams.

“We’re still very optimistic,” Ross told CNBC Friday. But “our defense, which was supposed to be so good, allowed way too many yards. I think that could be fixed.”



### UM officials believe the NCAA might not decide its punishment before National Signing Day in February, leaving coaches in a tough spot. UM has lost none of its 24 oral commitments since the Nevin Shapiro story broke, but at least two – Lakeland defensive end Trent Taylor and Georgia-based linebacker Raphael Kirby - say they will look around.

Miramar’s Tracy Howard, ranked as the nation’s No. 1 corner by Rivals, told us UM, UF and FSU are among seven contenders, and the NCAA issue will not factor into his decision. “Other people are mentioning the [UM] NCAA thing to me, but not other schools,” he said.

### Florida State indicated in recent days it would form a committee to discuss conference realignment options. Though a high-ranking FSU official privately expressed interest in the SEC earlier this month, FSU hasn't been approached by the SEC. Plus, the ACC increased the buyout fee to leave the conference from $12 million to $20 million. And that would be a major deterrent for FSU or any other ACC member. 

There's also less incentive for any school to leave the ACC because the conference is solidifying its future. USA Today reported Sunday morning that Syracuse and Pittsburgh have been invited to join the ACC (and will accept) and that the conference is considering adding two other East Coast schools, perhaps Connecticut and Rutgers.

### Though the Heat sees upside in second-year center Dexter Pittman, there are mixed views whether he can help this season. “Some feel he should be a key guy for us and some feel he’s a year away,” a Heat official said before the lockout. The team wishes he was a better rebounder (he’s merely average) and shot-blocker. But “he has great hands and finishes well. He could be a very good defender.”