CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Reds are counting on their highest paid player for absolutely nothing in 1988.

Pitcher Mario Soto will be paid $1.2 million this year, but the Reds don't expect one penny of dividend.

He will turn 32 in midsummer.

"We have no expectations of Mario at all," says general manager Murray Cook. "We're not counting on him."

Arm problems, followed by arm surgery, followed by more arm problems have turned Soto into an extraordinarily expensive mystery man going into the last year of his five-year, guaranteed contract.

The Reds aren't counting on him this year because they made the mistake of counting on him a year ago. The one-time ace of the staff pitched 31 innings last season, giving up seven homers, walking 12 and compiling a 5.12 earned run average.

He started the season on the disabled list and finished it there. At one point he went down to the lowest level of the minor leagues to try to work his way back to the majors. He never made it.

So, at the end of 1987, the Reds decided to leave him out of all 1988 plans.

"Last fall we didn't count on him, this winter we didn't count on him and nothing has changed going into spring training," says Cook. "Soto will come to spring training, but it will be a real crap shoot as far as he's concerned.

"I have no idea how he will be at the start of spring training. He will show us what he can do and we will evaluate him, as a pitcher and medically.

"It's a career-threatening thing he has. It's unfortunate, but injuries play such a dominating role for pitchers. Still, nothing that happens with Soto will be a disappointment for us because we don't have expectations."

Manager Pete Rose says Soto's arm problems have robbed him of his most valuable pitch -- his fastball.

"Mario's problem is that he has to have velocity, because when you're a two-pitch pitcher -- fastball and change-up -- those two pitches have to be totally different as far as speed," says Rose.

Batters who previously were either behind Soto's fastball or in front of his change-up now can't tell the difference between them, Rose says.

"You wouldn't think Mario would have arm problems because he doesn't throw any breaking balls," says Rose. "It's the same motion every pitch, he just holds the change-up differently.

"Very few pitchers who just throw fastballs and changes develop sore arms. The only other one I can think of is Andy Messersmith. But, there's no question that Mario's arm is hurt, because the velocity isn't there.

"He could go out right now and long toss and it wouldn't bother him. But when he gets on the mound and tries to extend and go forward, it pulls on his shoulder. Every time he tries to reach back and throw hard, he can't."

Tom Seaver, once a very hard thrower, extended his career by altering his style. But Rose isn't sure Soto can.

"Mario's ball is straight, Seaver always had a way of making the ball sink," points out Rose.

"Everybody can throw hard up, but Seaver's strong point was that he was a hard thrower down. That's why he could continue winning year after year after year. The secret to pitching is to keep the ball down, and Seaver kept the ball down with something on it.

That's why he was such a competitor and so successful."

Soto first pitched for the Reds in 1977. He improved steadily and by 1984 won 18 and lost 7 to lead the National League in win-loss percentage. But by 1986, he was 5-10. During his career, he was won 94 and lost 83.