When Jim Palmer, dean of the Baltimore pitching staff, thinks about Oriole pitchers and the upcoming season, he keeps seeing Sam Stewart. Everywhere.

"He's the pivotal man," said Palmer. "He's the long-relief man, he could be the short-relief man if (Tim) Stoddard's shoulder doesn't get better, and he could be the fifth starter."

That may worry Palmer, but Stewart is unmoved.

The laconic right-hander from Swannanoa, N.C., is ready for anything. He was impressive as the starter today against the Chicago White Sox, allowing four hits and a run in four innings and departing with a 2-1 lead in Baltimore's 4-3 victory. Stewart is 3-0 this spring in 33 innings with an earned-run average under 2.0.

If having to depend on Stewart for a multitude of services comes as a shock to Palmer, it isn't the only one in this unusual year for the traditionally pitcher-happy Orioles. They are accustomed to going into the season with a plethora of proven pitchers who know what is expected of them. With less than a week to go before opening day Monday, the bottom one-third of the staff remains in limbo.

Stewart says he knows what he'll be doing. "Long relief," he said.

And short relief? "It's a possibility, with Stoddard's sore shoulder." Stoddard gave up four hits in pitching to six batters in relief today, then left in pain. He'll see the doctor again Thursday. He has pitched only six innings all spring.

And starting? Stewart said he's been waiting three years for that chance. "I'd like to get my career started sometime," he drawled. "I don't want to spend seven years in the majors and only pitch 700 innings."

In truth, Orioles pitching, while still among the best in either league, is an unexpected mass of ifs.

Fifth starter Steve Stone is on the disabled list until April 11 with a sore elbow, the same one that pestered him last year, only worse. Stoddard, the premier right-handed short reliever, is struggling.

The Orioles dealt in the offseason for Paul Moskau, who was supposed to spell Stewart in long relief. But he was given his unconditional release last week after showing "no pop on the ball," according to Ray Miller, the team's pitching coach.

That leaves the four starters--Palmer, Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor--who may be the best quartet in baseball, two extremely fine relievers in Stewart and Tippy Martinez to back them up and an extremely puzzling set of question marks to fill out the squad.

Stoddard and Stone are question marks 1 and 2.

No. 3 is rookie Al Ramirez, who was 3-5 last year with Miami, Rochester and Hagerstown. He had a bad arm but is much improved this season, with a 1.80 ERA in 15 exhibition innings with the big club. But few expect Manager Earl Weaver, who has always depended on veterans, to put great store by a fellow who pitched class A ball last year. He's expected to return to Rochester for seasoning.

Question mark No. 4 is revived veteran Ross Grimsley, who pitched 22 innings last year, all in the minors after being sent down by Cleveland, and who signed on with the Orioles as a free agent after Cleveland dropped him.

No. 5 is Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse, another old pro who didn't play last year after being dumped by Los Angeles. He, too, was a free agent. Stanhouse has been rounding out well lately and pitched two innings of hitless relief today. "His slider is as good as ever," said Miller, the pitching coach.

The bet here, confirmed by Stewart, is that Stanhouse, Stoddard and Grimsley will fill out the nine-man pitching roster when the Orioles open against Kansas City on Monday, assuming Stoddard can lift his arm over his head.

Which is how Palmer comes to see Stewart everywhere.

Weaver says he has no worries about pitching. He said Stewart will only get into the starting rotation if he's needed, "and if he isn't in there by Aug. 1, that means I'll have four other guys who are fighting for the Cy Young Award."

He likes either scenario.

Nonetheless, the sense of uncertainty prevails. Even Weaver, who has been known to applaud a rainout in April because it means a pitching change sometime in August, said he has nothing planned beyond the first four games, with Dennis Martinez starting opening day.

Palmer hates the uncertainty. "The whole thing seems to be an unknown quantity right now," he said Tuesday as he iced down his arm after giving up four runs and 12 hits in six innings against the Phillies. "I really don't think management knows what to do. They have some strong young guys. But nobody seems to know who's going to be where."

As if on cue, management came storming around the corner in the person of Weaver, dripping from his shower. "Pitching?" he said. "You call what you did out there pitching? I call it horse manure."

"Thanks, Earl," said Palmer, and stalked off.

Uncertainty or no, some things never change.

Later, Weaver got in the last word in his seemingly endless war of wills with Palmer.

"I'll tell you what," he confided, "it's conceivable that neither Jim Palmer or Steve Stone will be on this ball club June 15 (trading deadline). If the other four starters come on strong--Stewart, McGregor, Martinez and Flanagan. Boom, they don't give up a run for a couple weeks. Now all of a sudden you're writing about the best pitching rotation in baseball."