Seems like we were just here with the Marlins, no?

Eight years ago, in a stretch of nine months from November 11, 1997 through July 31, 1998, the Marlins traded 12 key members of their championship team, including five regulars, two of their starters and their closer. The deals, ostensibly made to help the team escape massive financial losses, sent the team into a five-year funk in which they lost 457 games and became a non-entity on the sports landscape.

They emerged from this period, however, to win their second World Championship in 2003. That team’s best hitter? Derrek Lee, acquired during the first fire sale.

This winter, they went back to the well. With no new ballpark under construction and the same destructive lease in place that enabled then-owner Wayne Huizenga to lie about the team’s finances in ’97, the Marlins have once again torn apart their roster–and payroll–to acquire younger, cheaper players. What’s scary is that they appear to have done a much better job this time around, with less material to work with.

Consider that after 1997, the Marlins dealt away nearly 60% of the championship team’s at-bats, eight hitters who combined for a .269./364/.439 line with 111 of the team’s 136 home runs. Of the 65.6 Wins Above Replacement the 1997 Marlins generated, 50.5 was gone by August 1 of the following season.

What’s galling is how poor a job they did in making all those trades. Lee became a good player, though not a superstar until he went to Chicago. A.J. Burnett and Preston Wilson, acquired in separate deals from the Mets (note: for purposes of this exercise, the Marlins are being credited not for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile, but for the prospects they were subsequently flipped for), both became productive players. No one else, of the 22 prospects acquired in 10 trades, amounted to anything at the major-league level. Eleven never reached the majors, and two others did, but not for the Marlins. The only players to accumulate even one win above replacement were Lee, Burnett, Wilson and Jesus Sanchez.

It’s easy to look back now and say that Oscar Henriquez and Rafael Medina and Rob Stratton weren’t good prospects, but at the time, each was considered to have a reasonable chance of success. Looking at the list of 22, though, the only ones I can remember being excited about are Lee and Ed Yarnall, who was responsible for some of the more outlandish misses in BP annuals. The Marlins, in large part due to their desperation, didn’t leverage their talent well. That they got three productive major leaguers is a credit to them, but you’d like to think you’d do better.

This time, I think they have. In this winter’s deals, they’ve picked up one player–Mike Jacobs—who is ready to contribute immediately, and two pitchers (Travis Bowyer and Sergio Mitre) who also fit that description. You could put Ricky Nolasco in this category as well. Beyond that, they added two of the top 15 or so pitching prospects in baseball in Yusmeiro Petit and Anibel Sanchez, as well as a tools prospect who’s a reasonable gamble in Hanley Ramirez. Add in upside plays in Gaby Hernandez, Renyel Pinto, Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia, and the collection of players the Marlins acquired this winter looks like a nice haul.

They didn’t give up as much, either. More of the 2005 Marlins’ production was contained in free agents; the 1997 Marlins didn’t lose anyone of note to free agency (but did lose Tony Saunders in the expansion draft), while the ’05 version lost Burnett as well as regulars Juan Encarnacion and Alex Gonzalez.

The net effect is that not only do the 2006 Marlins look to be much better than their 1998 predecessors, but their route back to contention should be a shorter trip. This fire sale was executed with much more skill than the previous one, and the players acquired should far outshine the ones picked up eight years ago. Hindsight may be 20/20, but the first fire sale didn’t bring in any players ready for the majors, and the caliber of pitchers in the deals pales in comparison to the ones just picked up.

This doesn’t make the Marlins’ relationship with the city of Miami any better, nor does it excuse their usurious lease with their ex-owner, which has always been their real problem. It is, however, a credit to Larry Beinfest, who danced through a difficult situation and has given the Marlins a chance to regain their footing much faster than anyone would have expected.