MIAMI, FEB. 20 -- "The miracle of science," the Orioles' Dave Schmidt says. He smiles and points to a right elbow that's laced with a six-inch scar, the byproduct of a 1982 operation to shave a bone spur from the joint.

Schmidt was unable to play even soft toss for more than two months after that surgery, and when the 1983 season began, he wasn't ready.

The result was his worst season in the major leagues -- the fewest innings and saves and the highest ERA.

One of Baltimore's dozens of worries this winter was Schmidt, who missed the final six weeks of last season and again had to have a bone spur removed from the tip of his right elbow.

Schmidt was not only their best reliever (6-1, 2.86 ERA) in 1987, but also their second-best starter (4-4, 4.00).

Would he be ready, they wondered?

He will be. The scar he wears this spring is almost nonexistent. It's two small dots made by the arthroscopic instrument used by Dr. Frank Jobe, the Los Angeles surgeon who also performed the first surgery on Schmidt.

"There hasn't been one problem in the rehabilitation," Schmidt said. "It has been perfect, and I was ready to go three months ago. I told Dr. Jobe I'd see him in 1992 for my five-year cleanup. There was so much difference between doing it with full-blown surgery and the arthroscopic procedure . . . Maybe in five more years, they won't even have to break the skin open. Maybe it can be done with laser by then."

Without having to cut open the elbow, Schmidt was playing catch a month after the surgery and throwing at full speed a month after that.

So he's here and ready to pitch, and his situation is different than that of any of the Orioles' other 20 pitchers this spring.

A few months after the Chicago White Sox released him after the 1986 season, Schmidt became one of the cheapest, most valuable players former Orioles general manager Hank Peters ever signed.

The Orioles got him for a $375,000 base salary, and Schmidt, 30, responded in 1987 with career highs in victories (10), innings (124), strikeouts (70) and starts (14).

He was signed as a middle reliever, a guy to get the Orioles from the starter to Don Aase in the eighth and ninth innings. But with the rotation having fallen apart, Schmidt was thrown in as a starter on June 9. He won four of his first five decisions, including a three-hit shutout of the New York Yankees and a two-hit shutout of the Minnesota Twins.

He lost his last three starts at a time when his elbow was aching with every pitch, but his 10-5 record gave him the American League's eighth-best won-lost percentage. Schmidt hopes he was good enough that he has earned a spot in the 1988 starting rotation.

He wants it badly "because that's what I'd done my entire career until I got to the big leagues. I came up with Texas in 1982, and it just so happened they had a veteran starting rotation. I was used in relief then, and because I did well, I was always kept there.

"But I prefer starting and have told the Orioles that. As a starter, I think you have a lot more responsibility. You also make more money, but believe me, I'm not just saying it because of the money."

In a lengthy batting-cage chat, he repeated his desire to Manager Cal Ripken Sr. this morning, and then said, "I've done all I can do. I want to start, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to moan."

Schmidt's problem is that the Orioles may need him in the bullpen. They have six young pitchers who apparently will get the first chance to win starting jobs this spring. The Orioles believe the best situation would be to let the young starters work five or six innings, then turn a game over to Schmidt, Mark Williamson and Doug Sisk, their middle men.

In their talk today, Ripken Sr. told Schmidt he could make him no promises. But later, he sounded like Schmidt was a man with a ticket punched for the bullpen.

"Wasn't he 6-1 out of the bullpen?" Ripken asked. "How many guys did we have that did that well?"

The answer is none. Schmidt, a man as serious as Ripken Sr.'s marine haircut, did almost everything better than any of the Orioles' other pitchers last season, which was sweet revenge for a guy given a pink slip in December.

"I used it as incentive," he said. "If I get sent to the bullpen, I'll use that as incentive."

Orioles Notes:

Pitcher Jay Tibbs reported, but Jose Mesa remained AWOL. Mesa is supposed to be in the Dominican Republic with visa problems . . . Carl Nichols, Pete Stanicek and Jim Traber signed contracts today, leaving nine players still unsigned.