MIAMI, FEB. 25 -- His pro career is less than three years old, he hasn't played a full season at Class AAA and he hasn't even had a cup of coffee in the majors.

Logic and circumstances say Craig Worthington, 22, is not ready to be the Baltimore Orioles' new third baseman, their 31st since Brooks Robinson hung up his Gold Glove a decade ago. Yet he may be anyway.

As the Orioles began full-squad workouts today, Worthington arrived as their most highly regarded prospect in four years. When the exhibition season begins next week, Ray Knight still will start at third, but the job will be Worthington's to win.

Knight turned 35 in December, and his defensive range is very limited. Worse, the thing that was keeping him in the big leagues -- his bat -- failed him last season as he hit .222 in the Orioles' last 90 games.

Meanwhile, Worthington comes to camp as a cocky, strong young player capable of doing just about everything. His defense in the minors has been outstanding, and despite an awful start at AAA Rochester last summer he hit in the .350s with runners in scoring position.

His Rochester numbers are less than spectacular: a .258 batting average with seven homers and 50 RBI. But the Orioles point to other things: He was adjusting to a promotion from Class A. He was hitting .222 in late July, but batted .471 in his last 15 games and appeared finally to be getting comfortable with the International League when a torn left hamstring ended his season on Aug. 14.

"I'm anxious to see him play," Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said. "He made a big jump and got hurt just as he was getting his feet on the ground. It's the same thing we saw with Ken Gerhart. He was just starting to feel comfortable, then got hurt and missed the last 55 games. The reports on Worthington are very good, and his RBI totals showed me he wasn't overmatched."

Worthington, full of California cool and confidence, agrees, saying: "I'm here to make the team. A year ago, they'd just signed Ray Knight, and I knew I was here just to let them see me. Now, I'm here to make it."

Ripken first saw Worthington in 1986, and the impression from a single game has stayed with him. It came while Worthington was on his way to a 105-RBI season at Class A Hagerstown. Ripken and Scott McGregor had driven to Hagerstown, where McGregor was to pitch a game on rehabilitation assignment.

On a day when a lot of players went unnoticed, Worthington didn't, and about halfway through the game McGregor walked over to Ripken and asked: "Who is that? It's been a long time since we got those kinds of plays in Baltimore."

Ripken said today: "It wasn't that he made one or two outstanding plays. He made several. He went down the line to catch a foul pop that was as good a play as you'll see in any league. It was all the more impressive because we weren't getting anything near that kind of play from our third baseman."

That season, Worthington led the Carolina League in RBI (105), game-winning RBI (16) and was second in doubles (35), fourth in total bases (226) and eighth in hitting (.300). For a while last winter, it appeared he would be given a chance to jump from Class A to the majors, but then free agent Knight was signed.

Now, after a solid partial season at Rochester, it appears Worthington will have a solid chance at winning the job.

"It took a while to get adjusted at Rochester," he said, "but I never thought I was overmatched. I was going out there everyday with the idea of learning and I did learn."

Asked if his game had a weakness, he said quickly: "No, I don't think so. Well, I'd like to steal a few more bases {he had 10 in three seasons}."

A native of the Los Angeles suburb of Pico Rivera, he graduated from Cerritos Junior College and was the Orioles' first-round pick in the 1985 draft. It was no new experience, having been picked first three other times.

He was such a prized possession so early that Worthington says -- without arrogance -- he wasn't allowed to play other sports because people could see he was a major league talent.

"My coach knew it," he said, "and I thought I had a chance. I've always had confidence in my ability."

Some of the cockiness showed through this week when he was one of the few who didn't report before their scheduled reporting date.

"It's no big deal," he said. "There will be time to get my work in."

He said his idol is Ty Cobb "because he could do it all."

Orioles Notes:

Pitcher Jose Mesa remained absent with visa problems in the Dominican Republic . . . Ripken had the Orioles on the field for almost four hours today. They'll have five more days like this one, then play three intrasquad games before opening the exhibition season Saturday March 5 against the New York Yankees . . . Former Oriole Floyd Rayford signed a Class AAA contract with the Chicago White Sox believed to be worth about $30,000. After hitting .306 in 1985, he made $297,600.