La Russa expects commitment from club
By Joe Strauss
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
PHOENIX — Just over three weeks remain in the first installment of his two-year contract. Tony La Russa says he likes his team and likes his job.
But with the Cardinals listing toward a second straight postseason miss, the third-winningest manager in the game's history would also like to believe the organization will again prove its commitment to fortifying itself this winter via an aggressive search for what he considers "impact" help.
"I would anticipate ownership and the front office are excited about us making a significant improvement for next season," La Russa said. "If we had a losing season, you could make the same comment. But if you're a losing club, 'significant' could mean getting to .500. We've got the components here. You're adding to something good."
The Cardinals have answered last season's 78-84 downer with a 75-65 record that contradicted the low expectations that greeted them at spring training.
What widely was considered a "transitional" year left the Cardinals tied for the wild-card lead as late as Aug. 1 and at 14 games over .500 as recently as Aug. 28.
La Russa and his team have risen and fallen since last October's front-office overhaul and subsequent emphasis on organizational self-sufficiency grounded in player development.
That said, a baseball lifer who describes himself as "not a long-range thinker" hopes the club will make every effort this offseason to pull abreast of the well-monied Chicago Cubs and the recently emboldened
"The idea is if you have a chance to finish first, then finish first or at least contend for first," La Russa said. "When this season started, you didn't know how this team was going to play. Well, we've played pretty damn good. We're closer to first place than we are the second division (of NL teams). I would think the idea this winter is to make some significant additions so we can be there."
The Cardinals were four games out of first place in a second-place tie with the Brewers when the nonwaiver trade deadline passed before their July 31 game against the Braves.
Choosing to retain their prospects rather than answer earlier moves by the Chicago Cubs and Brewers, the Cardinals since have gone 14-16 to fall to the fringe of contention.
Asked if he chagrined at the lack of movement, La Russa said, "I would never answer that question. That's a private opinion I would share with the organization. There are no points to be made by saying I agree or disagree."
Others within the clubhouse are privately less politically correct, construing a lack of movement as a vote of no-confidence in a team that arguably overachieved for four months.
La Russa does make clear that he does not see all the answers to his team's numerous holes arriving from within the system.
"You have your prospects. And it's good to publicize how good they are. But you want to be realistic with what you have. We've seen a lot of players; we've seen some pitchers. But you have to ask yourself, is there an impact guy within your system, like an Albert (Pujols)? If (Adam) Wainwright was from our system, is there a guy like him?" La Russa said. "We're going to need some impact. Is that there, or is there someone who fits the next category — legitimate help?"
After a run of six postseason appearances in eight years and a run of 10 seasons of 3 million attendance since 1998, La Russa is aware that some accuse the organization of complacency. "I hear it all the time," he said.
This winter, he believes, offers an opportunity for rebuttal.
"The concern I hear the most is: Is the organization satisfied? We've had a nice run in the playoffs. We have a nice crowd. We have a nice ballpark. We're contending. … I'd be disappointed if that's the case. I don't believe that's true. But we have something to prove in that direction. We have some fair needs. We have to make our best effort to fill those needs, I would think."
In his 13th season with the Cardinals, La Russa is well aware that sizable contracts belonging to closer Jason Isringhausen, starting pitchers Braden Looper, Kyle Lohse and Mark Mulder, disabled right fielder Juan Encarnacion, shortstop Cesar Izturis and reliever Russ Springer expire after this season.
"I get some credit for being competitive. If I lose some competitive desire, then I don't deserve that compliment. It's up to me and to the nine on the field to prove that we're competitive every game. You can't rely on what you've done in the past. I never have," La Russa said. "I think the issues are out there and it's up to the organization to prove if they want to have a fighting chance to finish first. The only way you do that is by your actions, not by the benefit of what you've done. It's always what you do next. If you lose sight of that you're making a big mistake."
La Russa, who turns 64 on Oct. 4 and pondered his future after last October's firing of general manager Walt Jocketty, suggests no such ambivalence now.
"If I'm managing next year, I'm managing here," he said.
However, La Russa does not discount growing speculation that he could eventually go elsewhere as general manager. A crush of GM jobs is expected to become available shortly after this season, including in Seattle, Toronto and potentially Washington and San Francisco.
La Russa said any question about a future front office move was "not absurd; but right now it's just not pertinent."
La Russa believes he shares an effective relationship with general manager John Mozeliak, whom he suggested had much to prove upon succeeding Jocketty.
"He's a smart guy. There are 30 teams and he's got one of 30 jobs. He's working his ass off to prove he deserves to keep it," La Russa said.
Among the team's pending free agents is pitching coach and La Russa confidante Dave Duncan. Though ownership has insisted it will do what is required to retain Duncan, an undercurrent of uncertainty persists after the club refused to rework Duncan's deal last winter.
"I've always said where he coaches is where I want to manage. But that's not true this year because I've got a contract," La Russa said. "If he wants to coach someplace else and he gets a better deal, I wish him well and I would never drop a guilt trip on him. That would not be like a friend."