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Why do I enjoy this baseball team?

The Rays are a fun baseball team. When did that happen?

Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays are in a multi-game tailspin, again.

In what has always been a rebuilding year for the twentieth anniversary season, the Rays have steadily become a mix of defense-forward veterans playing out what are (practically speaking) one-year deals, and a handful of long-term assets with varying levels of experience.

But this rebuild is more than the Rays integrating star prospects like Jake Bauers and Willy Adames into the major league team. With the promotion and heavy featuring of less-eagerly-awaited players like Johnny Field, Joey Wendle, and Rob Refsnyder, the Rays are throwing pasta on the wall to see if it will stick.

These priorities have led the Rays to trade away key players such as the starting left fielder (Denard Span), the closer (Alex Colome), and the first baseman (Brad Miller), all of which has added to the volatility of the Rays performance — by design.

Consider the 2018-19 salary the Rays have cleared once the directive to trade Evan Longoria was complete:

Denard Span - $11M in 18, + $4M buyout
Alex Colome - $5.3M in 18, + 2 ARB years
Steven Souza - $3.55 in 18 + 2 ARB years
Jake Odorizzi - $6.3M in 18 + 1 ARB year
Corey Dickerson - $5.95M in 18 + 1 ARB year
Brad Miller - $4.5M in 18 + 1 ARB year

The Rays were built to remain a borderline competitive team, and so far they’ve done so, reaching two games above .500 despite winning only four of their first seventeen games. But yet another losing streak has set the team back from their Wild Card hopes for what feels like the billionth time, with the Rays now six games behind break-even (29-35).

And yet the most perplexing element to this season has been that this has been — by far — a more fun team to watch than it was last year.

Possibly in several years . . .

Maybe since . . . gosh do I write this? 2010? Have I truly enjoyed watching this year’s team more than any since then? As a team, maybe so.

Individual performances along the way have been inspired. Evan Longoria was a delight, David Price pitched out of his mind in 2012, as did a few in the series of Closers. James Shields at his best was a joy to watch. But as a team, this group is compelling in that they regularly keep games close, no matter the score early in the game, and better still, because they are so young, you’re never sure what they’re going to do.

I find myself asking: Will Christian Arroyo homer in this moment? Will Mallex Smith? Sometimes the answer has been yes, and it’s been exhilarating. It’s like walking into an action movie without any spoilers. These are parts unknown. It’s not fine dining but it’s full of flavor.

I’m mixing metaphors as much as the Rays are mixing salary-crunching directives with baseball innovation. Don’t expect it to end.

A baseball team should have two goals: to win, and to be entertaining. It’s hard to do both on a consistent basis, and most teams have to rebuild at one time or another. If my team can’t do the former, at least do the latter and let me smile through the pain.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Field congratulates Adames on his first HR
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While focusing on defense and lighter-hitting prospects, this year’s team is getting more hits and setting up more opportunities to score than have the Rays over the last couple of seasons, and despite sacrificing power on the altar of their rebuild, these Rays are still averaging more than four runs per game.

Not yet in its final form, that’s a promising start, but this team is still missing that element of elite-now talent to stay competitive. With a 9-17 record in one run games, close hasn’t been close enough.

From here on out, with a downward trajectory unlikely to pull up in time, the Rays will keep shedding valuable/expensive trade pieces. Specifically, you can expect Adeiny Hechavarria — sidelined with a hamstring strain — and would-be ace of the pitching staff Chris Archer to be included in trade rumors as the Rays march toward the trade deadline. You’ll probably also find the trade returns underwhelming.

The Rays have become more frequent traders since Erik Neander started directing the front office, having made 22 trades since he took over in November 2016. Some of those have been clear wins from the jump (Souza, Erasmo), others baffling experiences (what’s a Palacios?), and others incredibly disappointing (Longoria, Dickerson).

Playing the role of sellers in a tough market with few trading partners willing to offer up the same returns of prospects, awe, and wonder as we were accustomed to in the Friedman days, the Rays have made the best of a bad situation through frequency instead. These trades are like choosing short, weekend trips over a grand adventure that requires a week off from work. The Rays are still seeing the world, but the process feels more expensive and loses some magic when it comes in small doses.

But the roster, and the organization, is steadily changing over.

As a result, the Rays are a cartoonish moneybag stuffed with cash, bursting at the seems with talent, featuring one of the youngest rosters in the game, and with a top-five farm system ready to contribute. Tommy John surgeries are raining on the parade (Honeywell, De Leon, Banda get well soon) but by 2020 the Rays should have become one of the youngest and strongest teams in the American League, having opened a window of contention just ahead of a stadium move, while bankrolling cash for the future.

Who knew a salary dump could be so much fun?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays
Bauers and Wendle connect
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In life I have a policy called “The Sausage Rule.” If you really love something, never find out how it’s made.

For instance, I never want to know how a Chick-Fil-A sandwich is built. They are too delicious for me to learn the steps along the way. With baseball we do not get that luxury. Rosters (and the books) are cooked on an open stage. Some chefs get all the applause, tossing shrimp into the air and catching it in their hat. Others would be better served by a kitchen in the back, behind closed doors.

The Great Rays Rebuild was always going to rub people the wrong way, no matter what decisions the front office made. There are financial restrictions on the Rays 2018 roster that cannot be overcome easily, and as a consequence many trades have included an element of a salary dump (case in point: Alex Colome’s trade included Denard Span). Making these trades over a period of six months has been excruciating, and each return has felt light due to that salary component. The Rays would have benefited from operating in the shadows, but the nature of baseball is that it’s played under the lights.

Which brings us back to The Sausage Rule. No matter how it’s cooked, as long as the meal is delicious, no one will remember you slaughtering the chicken — slicing and breading the best parts, and putting it on a sandwich with pickles — in the same way no one complains about the 2011-2013 Astros rebuild in the year of our Lord 2018, despite that team’s many sins.

The Rays are not tanking in such a dramatic fashion, but they’ll pay for it just the same — on twitter, in the national media, and on this website. I didn’t like what the front office did this off-season, and I’m still not sure I like it. No one wants to see how the sausage is made.

But for the first time in a long while it’s fun — or at least compelling — to watch this team. For that I am thankful, and if the rebuild results in winning more baseball games, everyone will want to kiss the cook.