The Cardinals were the team to beat last spring, but they finished third in a tight three-team race that was won by a team that had the 14th-best record in the league the year before.
"In 2000, the Reds got [Ken] Griffey and the only thing everyone wanted to know is how many games they were going to win by," La Russa said. "Last year, we were supposed to win and we didn't. You have to play the games."
So the Cardinals appear to be at peace with their place under the radar this year. The Houston Astros signed two of the best pitchers in baseball - Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens - and the Cubs upgraded their strong young rotation with soon-to-be 300-game winner Greg Maddux. If ever a team was safely slotted in third place, it would appear to be the Cardinals, and they seem to be just fine with that.
"It's always better being that team like the Marlins were last year, with nobody counting on them to be as good as they were," said pitching ace Matt Morris. "You love to be that Cinderella story. That's everybody's perfect role. When you're supposed to be on top, everybody's trying to knock you off."
"It's an added distraction going into games thinking that you have to win because you're the better team on paper."
Let somebody else carry around all those expectations. The Cardinals have been supposed to win since they pulled off the surprising deal for slugger Mark McGwire back in 1997. They have spent tons of money to bring in several other big-name players - most recently superstar third baseman Scott Rolen - but for one reason or another they are still waiting to get to the mountaintop.
Maybe it's time to take a different route.
"No matter what they [the other contenders] have done, our attitude has to be that we've got to max our chances to compete," La Russa said. "Those teams were good last year and improved themselves, but I think when we play the games we're going to have a shot."
The Cardinals did not stand by idly while the Cubs and Astros upgraded their starting rotations. General manager Walt Jocketty moved decisively, too, sacrificing some of his team's substantial offensive punch to enter spring training with improved pitching depth.
He traded power-hitting outfielder J.D. Drew to the Atlanta Braves for promising (but unproven) starter Jason Marquis, reliever Ray King and prospect Adam Wainwright, a deal that could register as one of the key factors in the upcoming NL Central race or leave Cardinal fans cold if Drew finally emerges as a major star.
What other choice did the Cardinals have but to seek better balance after ranking second in the National League in runs scored (876) and 11th in ERA? Everywhere, however, there are troublesome questions. Morris was hurt for part of the 2003 season and enters 2004 with lingering concerns about his arm strength. No. 2 starter Woody Williams is coming off a career year, but he's rehabbing a sore shoulder and is not a lock to be ready to open the season. Jeff Suppan pitched well in Pittsburgh last year, but did not step up when he went to Boston for the pennant stretch.
La Russa still looks at the staff and sees enough depth to compete for a playoff berth.
"We've got choices to make in the starting rotation and the bullpen," La Russa said. "We're not searching. We can choose among capable guys and we have competition for some starting position spots."
They'll still hit. The heart of the lineup is as good as any, with Albert Pujols, Rolen and Edgar Renteria coming off 100-RBI seasons and Jim Edmonds capable of Most Valuable Player-caliber numbers. Drew is gone, but the Cardinals are hopeful journeyman slugger Reggie Sanders can replace some of the lost production.
"Reggie had a better year than J.D. did last year, largely because of at-bats," La Russa said. "If J.D. stays healthy, we think he'll have a big year, but we needed pitching and we needed to save some money. We like Marquis, Wainwright and King. I think we're going to be all right."
If the Cardinals are happy to play the underdog role for a change, veteran catcher Mike Matheny doesn't think that they were burdened by the expectations they carried into the 2003 season.
"I don't think that bothered anybody," he said. "What bothered us was that we didn't play the way we wanted to play last year. The hype? I don't think that affects the way you go about your business."
La Russa agrees.
"I think the only thing that changes is the kind of questions you have to answer," La Russa said. "If you stop and think about it, whether you're favored or your not, your camp is exactly the same. The most important thing is whether you believe you have a chance or not."
This could be a pivotal year for the Cardinals organization. La Russa is headed into the final year of his contract, and there has been speculation that he may not return in 2005. The front office took a big risk with the Drew deal and recently locked Pujols into a huge contract.
The bar is higher than ever, but the team seems to be looking forward to the challenge.
"The better the competition in the Central, the more exciting the year is going to be," Morris said, "and the more we have to stay together as a team. It's a big rivalry with Houston and the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry is tremendous. This year, everything is going to be more intense."