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ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa has managed for 29 seasons, long enough that he trails only Connie Mack and John McGraw on the career victory list. Over all that time, this year might have been his low point.
It's been a walk on hot coals since before spring training. Whether it's enough heartache and adversity to convince La Russa to walk away after 12 years and seven postseason appearances, the St. Louis Cardinals will soon find out.
La Russa has promised Cardinals ownership, which wants him back with a new deal, a decision fairly quickly. He's hedged since questions began following a nine-game losing streak that knocked last year's World Series champions out of contention.
"Since we've been eliminated I have been thinking a little bit more about it than I was before," La Russa said recently. "But it's not the priority right now."
The Cardinals gave their manager a strong finish, a five-game winning streak that included a big victory over the Mets that helped decide the NL East. They ended their first losing season since 1999 with 78 victories, only five shy of last year when they won the World Series.
Still, it was hard to shake the incessant problems -- on and off the field -- that began in midwinter: not enough pitching to replace the three starters that left as free agents, La Russa's spring training DUI, ace Chris Carpenter's season-ending elbow injury after opening day, Scott Spiezio's monthlong absence for treatment of substance abuse, Juan Encarnacion's career-threatening eye injury after being struck by a foul ball, Scott Rolen's season-ending shoulder surgery (again) and the report linking feel-good story Rick Ankiel with human growth hormone.
Reliever Josh Hancock's drunk-driving death shook the entire team.
"It just never seemed like there was anything that was going easy for us," La Russa said. "You woke up early, you stayed up late, you're always trying to work through something for the team. It's almost impossible to believe."
Payback for 2006
Perhaps it's karmic payback after last fall, when the 83-win Cardinals could do no wrong while dispatching the favored Padres, Mets and Tigers to win their first title in 24 years.
Jim Edmonds said if he'd known all of the woes were coming, he might have "packed up and gone home" in spring training.
During the nine-game skid that began with the Cardinals only a game out of first place, he suggested players were exhausted as much mentally as physically.
"It's been tough for different reasons, it's been tough for obvious reasons, and then tough for just the reasons we just can't seem to pull it together," Edmonds said. "We've been playing against ourselves and for ourselves and chasing a title and everything all at once."
La Russa's decision likely hinges on whether ownership is willing to make the financial commitment to put the franchise back on top. This year's budget free-agent pickups were disasters. Kip Wells lost 17 games and twice was bounced from the rotation, and second baseman Adam Kennedy became a platoon player with Aaron Miles before knee surgery ended his year in August.
This offseason, priorities for the shopping cart are a power-hitting outfielder and a starter who'll fit at or near the top of the rotation. How much they're willing to spend could depend on whether they pick up an $8.5 million option on closer Jason Isringhausen and sign shortstop and fan favorite David Eckstein to a new contract or instead plug in impressive rookie Brendan Ryan.
Isringhausen was 32-for-34 in save chances, making a remarkable recovery from hip surgery that caused him to miss the Cardinals' postseason run last fall.
"One way to look at it is how do you replace him?" La Russa said. "I would expect that Jason would be here next year, unless you can find a better one, and I don't know how they would do that."
Eckstein, the World Series MVP last fall, was hindered by injuries all year. During his frequent absences, the Cardinals took a long look at Ryan, who started at three infield positions and would be a much cheaper alternative.
"I don't know how many times I've been told this year on the streets, 'You guys have got to bring Eck back,"' La Russa said. "It's clear he gives you everything he's got."
Pitching a concern for '08
The rotation remains muddled, much like spring training this year. Mark Mulder needed a second operation for his rotator cuff in September and might not be ready for opening day, and Carpenter isn't expected back from elbow reconstruction until midseason at best.
That could leave Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper, a pair of converted relievers who both had successful years, at the top of the rotation. The Cardinals would like to re-sign trade deadline pickup Joel Pineiro and stand-in starters Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson are other options.
Wells and Anthony Reyes, on the other hand, were a combined 9-31.
Edmonds expects to be much healthier entering the final year of a two-year, $19 million extension and will anchor an outfield that could also feature Ankiel on opening day. Last offseason, Edmonds had surgery on his left foot and right shoulder. This time around, he anticipates no operations.
"I'm going to go home and get in the best shape that I can," Edmonds said "And not just say that this time because I hopefully won't have a surgery, and come back and play and see what happens."
Ankiel endured a 7-for-55 slump after a report in early September that he received a year's supply of human growth hormone in 2004, but pulled out of that tailspin the final week or so to finish at .285 with 11 homers and 39 RBIs in 172 at-bats.