La Russa faces new challenges

La Russa faces new challenges

JUPITER, Fla. -- The new look Cardinals will have the same guiding hand they've had for more than a decade as Tony La Russa begins his 12th season in St. Louis.

The team, with the notable exception of Albert Pujols, will little resemble Cardinals teams of recent vintage as mainstays Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds have moved elsewhere. La Russa sat down with to discuss the upcoming season. Through two weeks of workouts, how have the team's intensity and execution level looked to you?

La Russa: Well, the intensity has been outstanding. The execution has been spotty, but that's part of what training is about -- learning and getting timing. But the intensity is what's most important at this point. Later on, your execution has got to be better. But no complaints. I'm impressed with the way everybody's trying. When you have a camp where more guys than usual are youngsters and prospects, is it more fun? Is it more difficult?

La Russa: To me, you put on a uniform and have the privilege to be a Major Leaguer, it's fun. But it's a different kind of interest level. Your priorities are different. You're not getting a bunch of guys that you know are on your squad April 1, so you're trying to pace them. You're trying to evaluate more. It's like enjoying two different kinds of foods. You have said that this is the time to look at what you've got and evaluate players individually. At one point do you start looking at players in context of each other and how the pieces fit together to make a roster?

La Russa: It's ongoing, and as soon as the staff is certain, then you begin to increase the priority of that particular person or whatever. So it's nice to make that decision, but you can't rush to it. You can't say it's there when it's not there. So it's really kind of a variable process. When you evaluate players, how do you balance a guy's established career record with what you see over six weeks here.

La Russa: What they pay you for is your best judgment. There's nothing perfect about it. But say you're talking about a guy's on-base percentage. There are certain things you identify, some qualities, right? A good strike zone, the ability to foul pitches off. So that's what you're going to look at now that you've got him here every day. So there are circumstances where what you see here could receive equal or greater weight than what a player's record tells you?

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La Russa: It's also compared to what you have. Remember, you're taking the best of what you have. Your mantra in recent years, regarding the team's ability level, has been "pretty good to real good." What's the level this year?

La Russa: I think it's foolish to put limits on a club. Just like it would be foolish to guarantee 100 wins. So you don't want to make a mistake either way.

But it's clear that if sometime before the first half is over, we get Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter of their vintage selves, then our chances to win improve dramatically. Since all that is so unknown, I'd rather go with "pretty good to real good" again. And I think there's a certain truth to that. What are the things you still hope to accomplish over the remainder of Spring Training?

La Russa: You just take the different parts of the club and the different things they're supposed to do.

The pitching, obviously you want them to throw the ball well. You want to build stamina where it's necessary. And then you want to round out the skills. You want to defend the running game, field your position, all that stuff.

And on a position player, you want to be as sound defensively as you can. You want guys to feel good about their at-bats and play the game correctly. Are there things that need more emphasis in those teaching areas?

La Russa: Since so many guys have not had many at-bats, nor have they played enough defense at this level, it's really a comprehensive thing. I don't think you can short-cut anything. Everything that you look at has a potential impact.

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Spring Training info: coverage  |  Schedule  |  Ballpark  |  Tickets How much different are the planning and decision-making processes under the new front office administration?

La Russa: I think it's pretty similar. I don't think the decision-making is a lot different. I think what's different is now we're trying to get on the same page as far as how the game is played and pitched throughout the organization. We've got some holdovers, but we've got some new too. Has there been more back-and-forth between you and the front office about the direction of the roster?

La Russa: It's about the same. I'm just hearing different voices. What do you see as areas of the team that need to be strengthened?

La Russa: Play the best defense you can and be as effective offensively. You can break all those things down, but you look all over the park. There's a significant number of guys that are going to be playing and hitting that don't have established track records.

The idea is, here's the goal: compete and contend. The immediate goal is to be in contending position when we get our pitchers back. So how do you get there? Well, defend and pitch. It's all straightforward stuff that's been true for years. What are you confident will be the strengths of this team?

La Russa: Energy and attitude. But I had energy and attitude when I played. So it's a great place to start, and it makes an attractive club to watch, but if you constantly are getting beat, you can only go so far with that. It's only one part. But it's a place that you start, and I'm confident we're going to have a bunch of hard-playing guys. Because we're in a position where, if you don't play hard, you're not going to play.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.