Because the California Angels spent $5.3 million on three free agents last winter and yet reside in fifth place, a decline from 1976, the evidence seems overwhelming that someone has a screw loose in his halo. Would Gene Autry, the singing cowboy-owner, know a ballplayer if one used his guitar to hit .400? As for Harry Dalton, the general manager who spends the cowboy's greenbacks, the evidence suggests he couldn't identify Babe Ruth in a lineup with Alice Cooper, Billy Carter and Morris, the finicky cat.

Arguing on the side of the Angels, it may be said the money was well spent. Attendance at Anaheim Stadium will be the third-best in the team's 17-year history. Of the big-money free agents, two have been limited by injuries while the other suffered a dislocation of the psyche; all temporary ailments. Besides, the team is playing well now, gaining ground daily, and if time runs out this season, next season seems full of opportunity. As for Autry and Dalton, they may be Connie Mack reborn.

"I have no regrets whatsoever," Dalton said of the spending spree that produced no immediate improvement in his team. "As a baseball club operator, you have a choice. You can sit on your hands, or you can compete. And the only way I know to build a champion is to go out and aggressively compete for the talent available."

Then Dalton would do it again this winter?

"We're going back to the marketplace," he said. "If a quality player is available, we're not saying. "Hey, we shot our bolt last year and we're not going for anybody else."

Until a year ago, Dalton said, baseball teams had four means of acquiring players: by signing, buying, drafting or trading them. Then came the re-entry free-agent draft.

"And if you want to be aggressive, you can't ignore any way of acquiring players."

Not that Dalton loves to give away all that money.

"If you gave me a choice of trading for a player or getting him in h the re-entry draft, I'd go back to the old way, because it's cheaper."

So what will happen this year? More than $15 million worth of contracts were given to nine free agents last winter. Doomsayers saw baseball's foundation of loyalty and team-identity crumbling, moderates said the big-money market was an aberration that in time would disappear as owners learned that six-figure contracts didn't guarantee pennants.

"The only answer I can give is a guess," Dalton said. "It'll probably take a couple years to settle down. I can't say it's tremendously popular with the operators - because it is expensive, and in some cases frighteningly so."

The cost may be worth it, though, Dalton said.

"Major league attendance is going at a record pace, and maybe that's because all winter long we never got out of the headlines. In cities where the new free agents are playing, it's been a definite impetus. Look at us. We set an all-time record in our season-ticket sales - up 2,100 to 5,700. Aand that is mostly attributable to signing those three new people.

"So you can't conclude the re-entry free-agent system is bad. We are in show business. All these people coming to our games are spending optional dollars. They could be at the beaches or in the desert of the mountains. But they're here, and some of the reason is undoubtedly the new talent we have."

Two of Dalton's millionaires aren't playing now. Joe Rudi, late of the Oakland A's, has a broken hand. His return is idefinite. Bobby Grich, late of the Baltimore Orioles, is out for the season with a bad back. Rudi is hitting .264 with 13 home runs and 53 runs batted in; Grich .243 with seven homers, 23 RBIs.

The third Angel with wings of money is Don Baylor, another former Oriole. Now hitting .242 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs, Baylor for months was thrashing about at the .200 level.

"He was just trying so hard to have a good year," Dalton said. "He put an additional burden on himself because of the contract."

The Angels' manager, Dave Garcia, said, "Because a guy's getting paid $300,000 instead of $50,000 doesn't mean he has to score 300 runs if he's been scoring 100 or hit .400 if he's been hitting .267."

"We didn't sign him to do better," Dalton said. "We just want him to do what he's done in the past. He has power and speed. We wanted .270, over 20 home runs, better than 35 steals, 75 RBIs, score 80 runs. Don's always been a better second-half hitter, anyway, and he'll be close to those figures when it's over."

As director of player personnel for the Orioles 1965 to 1971, Dalton traded for Frank Robinson and Mike Cueller, brought Grich and Jim Palmer out of the minor leagues, hired Earl Weaver as manager and oversaw a major league operation that won four American League pennants and two World Series.

In his sixth season at California, Dalton hasn't produced a champion yet.

"This year, right now," he said to someone who asked when the Angels would be ready to win a pennant. "We have 26 games in September with Chicago, Kansas City and Texas. So if we get hot, we can do ourselves a lot of good."