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12/11/08 12:26 AM EST

For La Russa, it's all about this season

Manager begins 31st campaign as skipper, 14th with Cards

LAS VEGAS -- With only one year left on his contract, the questions have already begun for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. And he answered them patiently and with equanimity on Wednesday at baseball's annual Winter Meetings.

Just don't call him a lame duck.

"[Like a] spry chicken is how I feel," La Russa laughed.

Still, he understands the speculation. Entering his 14th season at the helm of the Cardinals and his 31st as a Major League manager, La Russa has a grasp of reality. But he's not ready to hang it up just yet. His contract situation is a minor consideration at most -- as it has long been for him in St. Louis.

"I feel so much the same," he said. "I've said it, but I really mean it. I don't feel any different right now in almost every respect than I did at the first of two years [of this contract] or the first of three years or the second of three. You know what I mean?

"It's all [about] the year you're going into, and it's all about what you do that year. The only thing I am aware is that the years are piling up and I'm not going to manage forever. But that doesn't distract at all from what has to happen to get our club ready. I don't even think about it beyond that."

La Russa and the club have for some time had an understanding that if he wants to return, he's welcome, and when he decides he's had enough, he can leave. A new contract is reached every two or three years, but it has rarely dictated his status from season to season.

He said Wednesday that he's doing well with the new Cardinals front office, a year after Walt Jocketty's removal as general manager. The regime will not be a factor, he said, in when he decides to hang it up.

"We already went through one year," he said. "Mo [general manager John Mozeliak] was part of Walt's immediate staff, so we've worked well all year long. I'm not going to get to the end of the year and think, 'Well, I don't want to be a part of this organization.' I think it's going to be more, 'When is it time to stop managing?' But I don't even think about it because I'm ready for 2009."

So he's begun looking at the team he's going to manage in the coming season, and he likes most of what he sees. Like the front office, he'd love to add a ninth-inning reliever, and he wouldn't mind some starting-pitching depth -- or his long-time object of desire, a big-name cleanup hitter.

But the team as constituted has La Russa getting excited.

"It's better than last year's club because you have a whole year of at-bats for [Rick] Ankiel, [Ryan] Ludwick and [Skip] Schumaker. You also have [Kyle] Lohse that we know is with us. I think [Joel] Pineiro will be improved this year. You got [Todd] Wellemeyer with a year of experience and health. I think Khalil [Greene] is a good fit for our club.

"So on paper we're better, and if we can just make a move or two, it will be significant."

One area that hasn't changed for the Cards is second base, where it appears Adam Kennedy will return for a third season and will go to Spring Training as the favorite for the starting job.

"All I know is that the difference between Adam last year and his first year was significant," La Russa said. "His first year, for whatever reason, you know, he wasn't the same player he's been. And then he might have gotten upset, but, I mean, really, I probably played him more than I should have, showing patience because of what he had done in his career. Last year he was more himself, so then it comes down to, is he going to work as hard and be as ready this spring, which I think he will."

As for Kennedy's trade request late in 2008, La Russa indicated it would not be an issue.

"We talked about it at the end of the season," the manager said. "He just wants to play, and I think it was a mutual respect thing. I thought he handled himself really well the times he didn't play. He ended up on a plus note. I think he's been quoted as saying, or maybe he said it over the radio or something, that he just wants to play, and if he has a chance to play in St. Louis, he has no problem playing here."

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