Don't worry, the world you woke up to today is the real one. Yes, the Marlins appear to be serious about signing Jose Reyes, are going to meet with Albert Pujols this weekend, and have already talked to Mark Buehrle. You didn't dream any of that. If anything, that odd feeling you have is one of deja vu.
The 2012 Marlins have the potential to be much like the 1997 Marlins, in that there is a talented group of players serving as a core that just needs a few more pieces -- the kinds of pieces a team can pick up via free agency, if they're willing to pay the hefty price.
For 2012, those homegrown guys are Logan Morrison, Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, and Josh Johnson, a group complemented by acquired pieces like Ricky Nolasco, Hanley Ramirez, and Anibal Sanchez. Back in 1997, it was a similar situation, where Charles Johnson, Luis Castillo, and Edgar Renteria were the totally in-house products, while others like Gary Sheffield (since 1993), Al Leiter (1996), Rob Nenn (1993), Devon White (1996), and Kevin Brown (1996) were in place heading into the off-season.
The 1997 core was nowhere near as strong as 2012's, of course: while Castillo and Renteria turned themselves into solid players, they were 21 and 20 years old, respectively, and about as good as you expect them to be at that age. Johnson had hit very well in the minors, though, White did his normal thing in center, Brown led the world in ERA, and Sheffield was coming off of a season where he led the NL in OPS, so there was something there.
The 1996 team finished 80-82, in third in the NL East, and with a Pythagorean record just one game worse than that. They were close to relevance, but needed a boost if they were going to compete sooner than later. That push came in the form of free agency, where the Marlins came out of nowhere to spend. After ranking 20th in payroll in 1996 with $25.3 million (an average of $842K per player), they made a big-money push for Albert Belle, but he ended up signing with the White Sox for five years and $55 million. Instead, they signed Bobby Bonilla to a four-year, $23.3 million contract, along with Moises Alou (five years, $25 million), and traded for Cliff Floyd from the Expos right before the season began in late March.
Offense wasn't the only place to get an upgrade, as the Fish also spent heavily on Alex Fernandez (five years, $35 million), giving them a rotation with Brown, Fernandez, and Al Leiter. Before this flood of free agency, the Marlins' idea of spending money had been Brown, who signed a three-year, $12.8 million deal the winter before.
Thanks to these moves, the Marlins jumped from 20th in payroll to fifth, more than doubling their price per player ($1.79 million), and coming within $20 million of the New York Yankees' payroll, something we likely will never see again no matter how successful Miami's new ballpark is.
The free agents did the trick, as the Marlins won the NL Wild Card with a 92-70 record. Alou had a 130 OPS+, Bonilla 125, and Alex Fernandez, while not as good as he had been to in Chicago, gave them 220 innings and a 113 ERA+. Their previous moves paid off, too, as Brown followed up his ridiculous 1996 season with another splendid effort (150 ERA+, career-high in strikeouts and strikeout rate).
The Marlins swept the Giants in the first round, then took out the 101-win Braves in the NLCS before beating the Indians in seven in the World Series. While the free agents obviously did their part, the mid-season addition of Cuban defector Livan Hernandez helped seal the deal, as he posted a 128 ERA+ during the regular season, a 3.13 ERA during the postseason and took home World Series MVP honors.
What the 1997 squad is more famous for than winning, though, is the dismantling almost immediately afterward. Brown was traded to the Padres and helped lead them to the World Series in 1998. Alou was dealt to the Astros, and helped them win two straight division titles. Bonilla and Sheffield were held on to initially, but eventually sent packing to Los Angeles during the 1998 season. White was shipped to yet another expansion team in Arizona. Oddly, the most expensive free agent, Fernandez, stayed in Florida for the duration of his deal.
Some of the pieces received in the 1998 dismantling were part of the 2003 World Series team. Derrek Lee came back in the Brown deal. Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile, received in the Bonilla/Sheffield/Johnson trade, brought back Preston Wilson, who was in turn a piece in the Mike Hampton/Juan Pierre deal. Overall, though, it was strong player development and trades -- just like today -- that brought them to 2003, as Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, Brad Penny, and Dontrelle Willis can attest to.
They broke up that club after that World Series, too, but here they are again as the cycle continues. Say what you will about the quality of baseball in between championships, but the Marlins have loaded up and burned down successfully twice now, and are primed for a third go at the victory side of things now. They've done this in the same stretch of time that the Pirates have failed to blow up and rebuild successfully even once despite 19 straight attempts at it. Ask a Pirates fan which 20-year stretch they would rather have.