Never complacent, Cards rebuild
La Russa works on converting Wainwright, Looper from 'pen
JUPITER, Fla. -- Tony La Russa teams aren't known for resting on their laurels. This La Russa team won the biggest prize of all, the World Series championship, but the challenges ahead of it won't allow much room for lingering congratulations, either.
On Saturday, the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals moved their workouts from their training complex into Roger Dean Stadium. Hundreds of well-wishing fans greeted them on their way into the morning workout. It reminded La Russa of both the upside and the downside of winning the championship.
"We'd been working in the complex and it's all spread out," La Russa said. "The first day you walk through [the stadium] and all of a sudden it's, 'Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations, congratulations.' It's wonderful, and at the same time. you've got to be sure that it works for you and not against you. If it distracts you, if you start feeling like you've got you're pet on your lap, that's not a good deal.
"We talk about it. We're counting a lot, like we do in almost everything else here, on our core leadership. We have a terrific clubhouse. Whatever it is that we're facing, mistakes that we're making, adversity, we've been good for several years. We do the coach thing and our players take charge.
"If you look back at the A's days, we were pretty good, we went to three [World Series] in a row. I go back to '83 [managing the Chicago White Sox to a division title] and in '84, complacency set in and as a manager I poorly responded. So ever since then, you try to learn from that, and we generally have gone about it differently and better. We've generally done a good job of that here. That's why I keep complimenting the core of our guys. We've been a good ballclub now for several years, and every year we just get excited about the chance to play in October. That's really our motivation, it wasn't just last year."
The challenge, even beyond the normal defending champion challenge for these Cardinals, is winning while rebuilding their starting rotation. Chris Carpenter is a legitimate ace, a Cy Young Award winner, no problem there. Anthony Reyes is promising. Kip Wells has had health issues in recent seasons, but is undeniably talented. The other two leading candidates for the rotation will be pitchers who will be converted from the bullpen -- Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper.
If you had to pick one pitcher who might have a breakthrough impact for the 2007 rotation, it would be Wainwright. His work last year in the bullpen was invaluable. Thrust into the closer's role when Jason Isringhausen went out with hip surgery, Wainwright was on the mound when the Cardinals clinched all three postseason series. His bases-loaded strikeout of Carlos Beltran to end the National League Championship Series was one of the most memorable moments of any postseason.
Wainwright spent part of the winter having people pleasantly telling him their recollections from that moment.
"I definitely got more comments about that than anything I did in the World Series, no doubt about that," he says now.
For the task at hand, moving into the rotation, Wainwright, 25, is particularly well prepared. He came up through the Minors as a starter. He has always conditioned himself to be a starter. With Isringhausen's expected return to full health, Wainwright is a logical rotation choice in more ways than one.
"In 2005 he was a starter in Triple-A, so he has a track record of durability," La Russa says]. "And he was told early enough to where he can condition himself. Based on everything that you look at with him, I think it's a perfect fit.
"It just turned out that, as a reliever, he's one of those guys who can get loose quick, and he's a cool customer, so that worked for him, as well. Adam is a natural because he's got a number of pitches. One of the reasons that guys get slotted one place or another is that maybe they really master two pitches. That works for a reliever, doesn't work for a starter. Starter, you've got to have a least three, and Adam's got four or five."
Wainwright was a postseason star as a newly minted closer, but it didn't take long for the suggestion of a return to starting to occur.
"When I say it happened shortly after the season, I mean it was 20 minutes after we got done popping champagne," Wainwright says. "Tony looked at me and said, 'Now we've got to figure out if you're a starter or a reliever.'
"As long as Izzy is healthy, I'd rather start than set up. This is what I always thought I'd be doing, but I'm not a starter yet. I'm competing. I need to out-pitch a few guys here to win a role. I'd love to close out games, but when we've got No. 44 (Isringhausen) over there, I've got no business doing it with this team."
The thought that Wainwright would still be invaluable in the bullpen may still linger in some circles.
"Tony came and told me the other day that I'd better be good, because he's looking for a reason to put me in the bullpen," Wainwright says with a smile. "I don't need any extra incentive. I love to compete. All the motivation for me was getting to the big leagues and staying there."
Life changes for players on a World Series championship team. There are plusses and minuses to that, but the chances are excellent that the St. Louis Cardinals will put the changes in the proper perspective. Wainwright himself is on the way to finding the right perspective.
"Life will change for me on April 3 when we get that [World Series] ring," he said with a smile. "I'll spend quite a bit of time with my ring. Maybe I'll make a little bed for it."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.