"The No. 1 thing we can get is a guy to hit behind Albert [Pujols]," La Russa said. "That's the No. 1 thing."
And whereas in past years, such comments have sounded like an attempt to prod the Cardinals' front office, on Thursday they had a different tone. La Russa spoke like a man who has expectations, rather than hopes. La Russa indicated that the club has some financial flexibility, and it's clear that St. Louis has some young pitching to deal -- especially relief pitching.
That doesn't mean a deal is going to get done. But things have changed from a year ago, when the Cardinals may have overachieved. The club sees itself in a different place on the success cycle, and is likely more willing to part with a piece of its future in order to solidify itself in the present.
"It's really hard to make a significant move," La Russa said. "There aren't many guys that fit what you're looking for. I felt like last year they made an attempt. And since Day 1, we came into this year knowing we were a better ballclub than we thought last year at this time, and we've gotten off to a good start, but we know we're thin."
The middle of the Cardinals order has battled injuries and ineffectiveness since the start of May. Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel both went on the disabled list, and neither has found his form since returning. Usual No. 6 hitter Yadier Molina is also slumping. That has led to a significant uptick in the intentional walks to Pujols, and magnified La Russa's longstanding desire to add a feared cleanup hitter.
"You don't want to disrespect the guys that are hitting around him now," La Russa said. "All I've said is that 500 or 1,000 at-bats from now, any of these guys could be that guy. They're building a career, and they've got some experience. But what you try to do is have guys not be unfairly pressured, and that's the position we're putting guys into. But they tried to make the Matt Holliday deal during the winter.
"If that guy over there is unreasonable, [then you can't do it]. ... Trying is very important. Doing something stupid is very low on the priority list. I don't want us to do something stupid."
La Russa mentioned Holliday, and he's certainly an intriguing name. Mozeliak recently allowed that the Cardinals would be open to an outfield addition, even though the most obvious need is at third base. And Holliday said this week that he is open to a potential deal from Oakland.
The former batting champion would certainly fit La Russa's criterion of a cleanup hitter who gets opponents' attention, though his numbers are down significantly so far this year.
"It's not totally whether the guy can do it," La Russa said. "It's, what's the perception on the other side?"
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.