MIAMI, FEB. 18 -- The brain trust of the Baltimore Orioles arrived early today at Miami Stadium and, over diet soft drinks and cold cuts, met for more than four hours to try to plot a course for their 1988 team.

"Pitching," new General Manager Roland Hemond said about a dozen times, defining the theme of this and every other spring training camp.

Ask him about attitude and he talks about pitching. Ask him about an offense that was 13th in the American League in runs and he talks about pitching.

For sure, the Orioles have several other questions: Can leadoff man Pete Stanicek make the switch from second base to left field? Can rookie third baseman Craig Worthington take Ray Knight's job away? Can Ken Gerhart hit well enough to play center field, which would allow Fred Lynn, 36, to play right? Can shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and first baseman Eddie Murray bounce back from disappointing seasons?

But if they can somehow find an answer to Question 1 -- What about the pitching? -- the other questions may be dramatically less important.

Last season, the Orioles (5.01) and Cleveland Indians (5.28) were the 45th and 46th teams in history to have team ERAs of 5.00 or more. They were the first teams to do it since the 1962 New York Mets, and it was especially painful for the Orioles, a club that once set the standard for pitching excellence.

"There's a big difference," Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said. "We usually brought pitchers up one at a time. We'd put them in the bullpen and take time working them in. I don't think we ever brought up four or five guys in a season. We went to the minors last year and took every guy we had. That's one helluva bad situation. It was unfortunate for the pitchers, and it was sure unfortunate for us. But experience is a big part of it, and we've got some of that now."

They got it the hard way. Before last season, the Orioles had a 3.46 ERA for the franchise's first 33 years in Baltimore, but in 1987, Orioles starters failed to complete even three innings 35 times, five innings 47 times.

As he has gone from meeting to meeting, with fans, coaches and players, Hemond has heard the same thing about the pitching: It stinks. He heard it from owner Edward Bennett Williams, in a meeting with first baseman Eddie Murray and others.

"From what I gather about last year is that the Orioles were getting behind so early that they were trying to come back every night," Hemond said. "I've heard about attitude in the clubhouse and all of that, but I think winning cures a lot of that. And winning goes back to pitching.

"If the pitchers keep you in a game, your offense has a chance. Otherwise, a good offense is going to look bad when one or two guys are trying to do the whole thing. I gather that when the Orioles stayed in the game until the sixth or seventh innings, their record wasn't too bad. When you fall behind early, you have to play long ball. When you don't, you're playing baseball."

Hemond is the point man for an overhauled front office that includes not only a new general manager, but a new farm director (Doug Melvin), three new coaches and a half-dozen new scouts. Hemond's baseball reputation is that of a tireless worker with boundless enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm may be severely tested the next six months. Although he has talked trades with all 25 teams, he has been unable to make a dramatic one. But he has made a lot of small ones, and when the Orioles pitchers and catchers open spring training Friday morning, he is hoping they add up.

Hemond picked up veteran right-hander Doug Sisk from the New York Mets, and Sisk is expected to be a setup pitcher for closers Tom Niedenfuer and Don Aase (when Aase recovers from shoulder surgery).

He traded Ken Dixon to Seattle for another struggling right-hander, Mike Morgan (23-34 the last two seasons). His latest deal was Tuesday when he sent three minor leaguers to Montreal for right-hander Jay Tibbs, who, like Morgan throws hard and has been in the big leagues without ever having been consistent.

But perhaps Hemond's biggest addition was drafting Jose Bautista, 23, from the Mets organization. He was 10-5 with a 3.24 ERA at Class AA Jackson last season and has earned glowing reports during winter ball. Former general manager Hank Peters' last trade was sending Mike Flanagan to Toronto for two other young right-handers, Jose Mesa and Oswald Peraza.

From Bautista, Morgan, Tibbs, Mesa, Peraza and Sisk, along with last year's pitchers, Hemond hopes to piece together a staff. He's especially hoping that last season's rookies -- Eric Bell, John Habyan and Jeff Ballard -- improve.

Last season, the Orioles' rookie pitchers started 63 games, 18 more than any other major league club. The team was 22-41 in those games, and the rookies went 15-32 with a 5.99 ERA.

"But," said Hemond the optimist, "they were getting their training up here. They probably belonged in the minors one more year but, because of injuries and slumps by guys like {Scott} McGregor and Flanagan, they were brought up too fast. Maybe that'll pay off this year." Certainly, the Orioles have more power pitchers than they had a year ago when the roster was loaded with finesse-type pitchers. Mesa has a 92-mph fastball, and Tibbs can throw in the low 90s. Bautista and Morgan could both be considered power pitchers.

The other factor is injuries. If relievers Dave Schmidt and Aase recover from surgery, the bullpen might be not just respectable, but good.

"I can't help but be optimistic," Ripken Sr. said. "We start with a bullpen of Schmidt, Niedenfuer, Mark Williamson and Doug Sisk. Then we hope to get Aase back. With those five, our bullpen is strong. I have confidence in {Mike} Boddicker and Morgan, and after that it's a matter of young guys coming in here and competing for a job. I can't predict what'll happen, but we're going to have more depth at Rochester. That has to help."

Orioles Notes:

For the first time, the Orioles are going to have an in-season weightlifting program. The club spent about $20,000 on equipment made by Cybex and players will be asked to use it twice a week after games "to maintain their strength," Ripken Sr. said. The machines are similar to the ones made popular by Nautilus and were purchased at the request of several players. Catcher Terry Kennedy and shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. have already begun programs . . .

Reliever Tippy Martinez will try out for the Minnesota Twins at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore Friday . . . Among the regulars who'll report early with the pitchers and catchers Friday are Ripken Jr., second baseman Bill Ripken and outfielders Lynn, Gerhart and Larry Sheets. Stanicek will be here to begin playing left field.