"We have a strong, deep team that is as well set for the future as any in baseball ." Hank Peters, general manager of Baltimore Orioles

For the past two springs, the Baltimore Orioles have not even tried to hide their fear. The Birds felt acutely endangered as they flapped around blindly in the gilded but predator-filed cage of free-agentry.

Every time Baltimore looked up, some big, greedy cat had reached in and suddenly another Bird was missing -- just one more empty, swinging perch in the Oriole locker room.

The franchise that had won more games than any other in baseball since 1960 faced strong prospects of becoming a loser on the diamond and a redink disaster at the gate.

Now, at last, the Orioles believe that their feisty, economy-size operation has survived its dollar crisis.

Not only that, but the big Birds named Hank Peters and Earl Weaver are preening their feathers. They look like two canaries that just found a way to eat the cat.

"It's almost hard to believe how far we've come from two years ago at this time," said Oriole GM Peters this week.

"We have more quality pitchers than we know what to do with. Our key regulars are basically young, but now we've got good players pushing up from the minors once more.

"We can't find room for them all to play. It's nice to have that kind of problem again."

When the O's moved up nine rookies in 1977 Peters said, "These guys are all we've got. We sink or swim with them."

The Orioles swam, winning 97 and 90 games the last two years, while developing a new core of talent: Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor, Rich Dauer and Doug DeCinces.

"We survived a crisis in the history of this club without ever falling from contention," said Manager Weaver. "Face it, we were depleted. We got nothin' for Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Wayne Garland and Ross Grimsley.

"Eddie Murray was nothin' but a stroke of lightning for this club. Garland left, but we had to make room for Flanagan, anyway. Now that looks awful good. Then Rudy May (traded) and Grimsley went out the window, but McGregor and Martinez stepped in and maybe, in the long run, we're better off that way."

Weaver's staccato, shorthand speech has a simple theme: "The Orioles have been both smart and lucky."

For the moment, the Birds don't predict that they are going to beat up the world champion New York Yankees or mug the other American League East powers.

But, instead of scraping for selfrespect, the Birds are beginning to wonder if they might not be a club waiting in ambush, a team that can't wait for the future.

"Man, people sure overlook us," said coach Rabbit Miller. "We could lead the league until Sept. 1 and nobody would notice. Seems like we're the only ones who believe in us."

"I love our pitching," said Weaver, who could normally go a full season without saying that particular fourletter letter word. "And pitching is 90 percent of the game.

"This might be... no, it probably will be, the best staff I've ever had.

"You can't expect nothin' and you can't predict nothin' in this game. You go nuts if you try. But you can look at talent and past performance and say, 'It's all there, ready to break out.'

"The mark of a good team is that you don't have to hope that everybody has a peak year, just a few guys. That's the way I feel now."

The man most relieved by this is Peters, the tight-fisted general manager many called bull-headed. His decision to build through the minors may prove sound for low-budget Baltimore.

A whole new crop of baby Birds has already arrived -- seven of them.

The three biggest are tall righthanders: Sammy Stewart (struck out seven straight in September debut), Dave Ford (0.00 ERA in 15 September innings) and 6-foot-7 reliever Tim Stoddard (led Puerto Rican winter league with 1.86 ERA), a starter on N.C. State's 1974 national-championship basketball team.

"I've got big-league pichers I'm gonna send down to Rochester 'cause there's no room," said Weaver.

"Our big decisions of the next couple of years are not going to be finding pitchers who can win in the majors, but picking the best of what we already have and perhaps trsing the rest for hitters."

The Orioles drool at their options. Getting free-agent Steve Stone from the White Sox (12-12 in 1978) gives the O's a credible fifth starter -- a role filled badly by popular but antique Nelson Briles last season.

"We love Stone's ability," said Weaver, lapsing into that unfamiliar word again. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have spent that kind of money for him ( $1 million for four years)."

So, with seven potential starting pitchers -- five of them 27 or younger -- Weaver can say, "I'd hate to trade Jimmy Palmer, but it's definitely thinkable..."

Suddenly, the O's also have four decent prospects as regulars. Infieler Chick Krenchicki's minor league stats make him look like a Grich clone. Could he, not erratic Kiko Garcia, be the shortstop heir?

First baseman Spider Chism and outfielders Mark Corey and Gary Roenicke all hit more than 300 at Rochester last year. Thanks to their development, the disastrous Spanish experiment with Andres Mora and Carlos Lopez has mercifully been back-burnered. "The best news of the spring is that Earl never has to mention either of them," said one Oriole source.

Basically, Baltimore has perhaps the best long-range starting pitching in baseball.Its bullpen -- with Don Stanhouse, plus Stoddard -- is at least good.

Other emerging Oriole strengths, however, are almost unknown. What team was third in the majors in homers? Baltimore: with a lineup of Ken Singleton, Murray (second in AL in total bases), DeCinces (third in AL in slugging) and Lee May that few teams can surpass.

Baltimore's infield defense is even less respected, despite some statistics that are hard to believe.

DeCinces made one error in his last 72 games, Murray one in his last 140. Dauer set an all-time record of 86 straight errorless games, finally erring on closing day Mark Belanger had one "E" in a 67-game stretch.

If the O's range is suspect, their hands are obviously superb. For garnish, catcher Rick Dempsey was second best in the AL at throwing out stealers.

Balanced against this is one of the worst outfield defenses in history. Pat Kelly, Mora, Lopez and sometimes Singleton are armless assassins -- triple threats equally dangerous to themselves, others and the ball. Center fielder Larry Harlow lives in fear.

"We gotta work like a summabich on our outfield defense down here," said Weaver, who has assigned Frank Robinson as special "communications director" for the Doom Patrol.

"How'd y'all communicate today, Robbie?" Robinson often is teased.

Robinson probably wishes he could line the lot of 'em up before a firing squad at dawn. Great pitching and horrid outfielding is a mortal baseball contradiction.

At least the return of injured Al Bumbry (.317 in 1977) offers some solace. But even Bumbry, a decent left fielder, is over his head in center.

"Trade me to the (California) Angels for an outfielder, then they can win their division and so can we," said Palmer, agitating as usual. "Otherwise, neither of us will."

But the Angels don't have any spare outfielders.

"Then trade me, anyway," grinned Palmer. "Since when does this club get what it needs in a trade?

"Just joking," added Palmer, always careful to protect his flank when he speaks the truth. The O's dangled for an outfielder all winter and never got a nibble.

"Actually," said Palmer, "we could win the division now with just a defensive center fielder, even if he hit nothing.

"It's when you have three 'average' outfielders together, like we do, that you can really get hurt," he said, treading gently. "If you have a great center fielder and two awful guys on either side, it's not nearly as bad because you can tell the man in the middle to handle everything.

"We're going to win a lotta games... we can win 95 with what we have now. But everybody knows that in out division that won't be enough. It'll take 100. Can you win 100 with an obvious weakness?"

Are you still teasing, Mr. Palmer?

"Yeah, yeah," said Palmer, with his Cheshire Cat smile. "Just say if Earl has a good year managing, we'll win."

The Orioles' reluctance to make a major offseason trade may simply be another sign of the club's evaluation that it holds a winning hand. Why gamble on a big deal to catch the Yankees and Red Sox now, when they can stand pat for a year or two, win enough games to draw a million fans and wait fo rthem to get old in the '80.

If the Orioles are being guided with a cautious hand, it is difficult to blame them. Like a gambler who has had a lucky streak after getting down to his last dime, the Birds can be forgiven for sitting idly and admiring their nice, reassuring stack of chips.

After all, it wasn't long ago when the plucked Birds of Baltimore thought they were about to be turned out in the cold.