General manager John Mozeliak, in his first season on the job, sounded the same refrain.
"We expect to be competitive," Mozeliak said. "The message here is, even though there have been a lot of changes, expectations are still very high."
La Russa conceded that optimism was the only way to look at an upcoming season.
"I don't think we want to start spring training thinking there isn't a way for us to pull this together and contend," he said. "We're going to see how good we can be, and then we'll measure up. I don't think you put limits on yourself before you get started."
The Cardinals are likely to open the season with new regulars at four positions: shortstop (Cesar Izturis), third base (Troy Glaus), center field (Rick Ankiel) and right field (Skip Schumaker/Ryan Ludwick). Adam Wainwright is likely to make his first Opening Day start instead of usual lid-lifter Chris Carpenter, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery performed last July.
WHERE, WHEN: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. First exhibition game is Feb. 28 against the New York Mets.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: 2B Adam Kennedy is coming off the worst year of his career at .219. He finished the season on the disabled list after knee surgery. Presumably healthy, Kennedy should be more comfortable in his second season back in the National League, although, if Kennedy struggles early, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa isn't likely to go too long with him with Aaron Miles in reserve.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Braden Looper won 12 games in his first year as a starter but must improve his nighttime record of 5-11 with a 6.75 ERA. A 4.94 overall ERA doesn't suggest he would win 12 games again.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Tony La Russa has 2,375 wins (2,070 losses), ranking him third all-time in managerial victories. He is very much a hands-on manager, although he will let pitching coach Dave Duncan make many of the decisions in that category. La Russa is comfortable with his six-man coaching staff, which has been together for five years.
NOTES AND QUOTES
--RHPs Cliff Politte and Dewon Brazelton were held back early in camp after some issues were raised on their physicals. Politte, who had shoulder surgery a couple of years ago, was cleared to start throwing again, but Brazelton is only playing catch and doing shoulder work.
--RHP Braden Looper, who is finishing up a three-year contract, is striving for consistency, if nothing else.
Last year, he was mostly really good or patently awful. In 10 of his 12 losses, the Cardinals allowed eight or more runs, and in nine of them, it was nine or more runs. Looper himself allowed six or more runs on eight occasions. But, in Looper's 12 victories, Looper and the Cardinals allowed two runs or fewer 10 times.
--1B Albert Pujols said he's not too concerned about the right elbow ligament sprain that has plagued him for years. Last season, affected by the elbow and hamstring strains, Pujols still managed to hit .327 with 32 homers and 103 runs batted in, giving him seven consecutive seasons at .300, 30 and 100. However, reduced to trotting on the bases, he missed a seventh consecutive 100-run season by one run.
"I knew he was hurting and I knew it was affecting his play," manager Tony La Russa said. "And he ended up still one of the better hitters in the league."
--Former record-setting 1B Mark McGwire is expected in camp as an instructor when the exhibition season begins. McGwire, who retired in 2001, has been asked several times to come back as a hitting aide, but he hasn't agreed to do it previously. Manager Tony La Russa said this was the longest McGwire had gone before saying, "No."
--La Russa said he wasn't likely to use late-inning relievers Jason Isringhausen and Russ Springer in a major league spring game until March, trying to preserve them for the regular season. The two will pitch in some minor league games early in camp.
--C Yadier Molina, who had late-season knee surgery, has shed some 10 to 15 pounds. "I'm 25, and I need to be thinking about not only this season, but in two more years, three more years, how is that knee going to be?" Molina said.
--RHP Matt Clement, who hasn't pitched since 2006 as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery, is throwing off the mound, but pitching coach Dave Duncan said Clement's arm strength isn't likely to be enough to make him available for Opening Day.
"Even if he's ready, it's likely we'll see him compete somewhere else just to get him in the swing of things," Duncan said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Losing seasons the Cardinals have had this century (78-84 last year).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Even when you're not pitching, you're surrounded by guys who are in the game. It's not like you can sit in there and goof off or talk about things you shouldn't be talking about because somebody will look at you funny. You have to watch the game whether you want to or not. But, ultimately what that does, because you have to watch the game whether you want to or not, you end up learning from the process." -- Converted reliever Adam Wainwright on being in the rotation and observing in the dugout.