The Rays and the White Flag trade of '97

On July 31, 1997, the White Sox were 52-53, in third place in the AL Central, but just 3.5 games behind the first-place Indians. The team was in the playoff hunt, but GM Ron Schueler traded starters Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin and closer Roberto Hernandez to the Giants for prospects Keith Foulke, Mike Caruso, Bob Howry, Brian Manning, Lorenzo Barcelo and Ken Vining.

It became known as the White Flag trade.

Alvarez was the team's best starter, 9-8 with a 3.03 ERA. Darwin was the team's second-best starter, with a 4.13 ERA, although he'd served up 21 home runs in 113.1 innings. Hernandez had 27 saves and a 2.44 ERA. Fearful of losing all three players as free agents, Schueler decided to cash in for prospects. Outcry was immediate.

Alvarez said White Sox management treated players "like garbage." He later added, "Most players don't seem happy and comfortable there. For what reason, I don't know." Shortstop Ozzie Guillen had a different take. "The fans have to look in the mirror before they start criticizing the trades," Guillen said. "The fans are mad and they should be mad, but they don't show up at the ballpark. That's why we had to get rid of people.'' The veteran Darwin, who had played for seven different teams, said, "I've never seen in my 22 years in baseball an owner say that he was giving up on his ballclub."

Giving up. The worst message a front office can deliver to its ballclub and fans.

But what if it's the smart thing to do?

Entering Wednesday's game, the Tampa Bay Rays are 7 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and 5.5 games behind the Yankees for the wild card. The simple fact is that they're not as good as those two clubs. The Red Sox and Yankees have run differentials of +114; the Rays are at +35. They are unlikely to catch either team. According to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report, they have a 5.8 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Buy or sell? Go for it or give up? If you're the Rays, the smart move is to cash in. Even if they got Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, that probably wouldn't be enough to catch the Yankees. The Rays have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, but it's mostly on the pitching side. They already have an excellent rotation, with flame-throwing lefty Matt Moore soon to arrive. They could trade James Shields and get a power bat for first base or catcher (Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal from the Reds?). They could trade B.J. Upton, with Desmond Jennings ready to take over center field.

But the emotional move, of course, is to go for it. Use their lower-level prospects to upgrade the bullpen. Maybe get Rafael Furcal to fill the gap at shortstop. Hope Evan Longoria hits better. Hope the rotations of the Red Sox and Yankees fall apart.

Buy or sell? What do you do?