HOUSTON — The Dodgers, whose pitching ranks near the top in the National League, nonetheless took what club Vice President Fred Claire called a gamble and agreed to hire veteran pitcher Mario Soto, recently released by the Cincinnati Reds after failing to fully recover from major shoulder surgery in 1986.
Denying that the Dodgers are not satisfied with Don Sutton or concerned about Fernando Valenzuela's periodic problems, Claire said the Dodgers sought Soto because, "You can never have too much pitching."
Soto, 31, was 3-7 with an earned-run average of 4.66 in 14 starts when the Reds released him June 16. Once one of baseball's dominant pitchers, Soto underwent surgery to remove cartilage from his right shoulder late in the 1986 season and missed nearly all of 1987.
Soto will join the Dodgers today, but Claire said he will not sign a contract until after he has been examined by Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles on Thursday. Claire added, however, that even if Jobe determines that Soto is not fit to pitch, Soto still will be signed and rehabilitated. "He's been an outstanding pitcher and has the ability to be again," Claire said. "This is the same surgery as (Dodger reliever) Alejandro Pena had. Pena has recovered. We're hoping Mario will, too. Even if (Jobe) tells us it'll be a month before he can pitch, it's a risk worth taking."
It is not much of a monetary risk for the Dodgers. The Dodgers will sign Soto for the major league minimum of $62,500 and will pay him only about $40,000 since the season is nearly half over.
Soto struck out more batters, 1,066, between 1981 and 1985 than any other major league pitcher. But his right shoulder problems began early in the 1986 season and continued until Jobe performed arthroscopic surgery in August of that season.
Claire and Manager Tom Lasorda said Soto's immediate future depends on Thursday's examination. Claire would not say whether Soto might eventually replace Sutton, 43, whose contract has performance incentives.
Lasorda said: "I think (Soto) will probably go on a rehab program and we'll send him down (to the minor leagues) to pitch a few ball games and then have him come up."
Asked about a recent statement by Red Manager Pete Rose, to the effect that Soto has "lost it," Lasorda said: "We have some ideas we think will make a difference."
Under a rigorous rehabilitation program devised and overseen by physical therapist Pat Screnar, Pena fully recovered from a similar right shoulder surgery in about two years. It has been slightly less than two years since Soto's surgery and, according to one report, his fastball has been consistently clocked at only 81 m.p.h.
"I think Mario is ahead of Alejandro in terms of progress in recovery," said Claire, who met with Soto over the weekend when the Dodgers played the Reds. "It was a gamble. But when you have a chance to add to your staff, you do it. We signed him with the intent of having him help the major league club, not Albuquerque."