One constant query pursues the Baltimore Orioles this spring: how could a team that just lost Earl Weaver stand pat all winter?

The only offseason twitch was to get Aurelio Rodriguez to replace Floyd (Honey Bear) Rayford as the club's 25th man. Essentially, the Orioles looked at their other 24 men and said, "We'll hold these."

In a sport where, for seven years, free-agent signings and trades have lit up the offseason sky like fireworks, it's rare for a contender to lie fallow.

Since closing day, the Orioles, after a brief investigation into a trade for Texas third baseman Buddy Bell, have barely stirred a feather. For the first time since Catfish Hunter made baseball an upscale profession, the Orioles are willing to proclaim themselves--shout to the rooftops, even--that they're once again an organization that awaits its future with anticipation, not fear.

"We're not building a winner. We are a winner," said General Manager Hank Peters from the team's camp today. "This winter, it was comforting to recognize that there were not a lot of things we needed to do." This is the same GM who has annually wrung his hands in anguish over the disasters that could befall his team if it had the slightest run of injury, age or ill luck.

To grasp Peters' equanimity, it's necessary to realize that GMs seldom think one season at a time; like commissars, they live by five-year plans. These days, Peters believes his organization's work in the late 1970s is beginning to bear fruit in the '80s.

First, let's return a moment to Peters' arrival in Baltimore before the 1976 season; he found himself in a curious, dichotomous Oriole world.

Peters inherited one of the best AAA teams imaginable--a gang that had 10 future Orioles, including Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Dennis Martinez and Rich Dauer; this cast, the legacy of previous GM Harry Dalton and his scouting network, proved the foundation of the '79 World Series team.

Yet, when Peters gazed at his farm system, he discovered to his shock that "we didn't have squat below Rochester. After the class of '76, Sammy Stewart was all that was left. No other player in our system in '76 has contributed significantly since then. We literally started over."

Although Peters declines to say so, this barren ground was, in part, the legacy of Frank Cashen, the general manager between Dalton and Peters from '72 through '75. In '72, the Orioles had 29 full-time scouts; by '76, the total had dwindled to 15.

"We'd changed philosophies in the early '70s; dismantled our scouting system and joined the Central Scouting Bureau," said Peters.

"It worked for some teams, but certainly not for us. We did not get good results. So, when Clyde (Klutz), Tom (Giordano) and I arrived (in the front office), we withdrew from the bureau and had to build up the whole scouting system again. It's taken years. Now (with 31 full-time scouts), we have prospects at every level again."

From '77 onward, Peters insisted that the Orioles' future depended primarily on two things--the success of the farm system, plus the ability to re-sign home-grown stars before they went free agent.

Since 1980, it's been common scuttlebutt that the roots were withering; it was said that when the veterans of the '79 team disappeared--Palmer, Belanger, May, Singleton, Bumbry--the 25-year reign of the Orioles as the game's most consistent contender would be ended. Peters now believes those predictions were dead wrong.

"No team in baseball had two rookies last year as good as Cal Ripken (Jr.) and Storm Davis," said Peters. "Not many people would argue with that . . .

"We can't compare our Rochester prospects now to '76, but we're certainly strong again. We're not looking for quantity. We're looking for quality."

Peters thinks the Orioles have the proper prospects at the right positions.

Swift, switch-hitting John (T-Bone) Shelby, 24, is the future center fielder, as well as a partial answer to the club's lack of speed; it's just a matter of time until he replaces Al Bumbry.

Many think that the Orioles' third baseman is "I-don't-know;" Peters assumes that the future of the hot corner is named Leo Hernandez, who had 34 homers and 118 RBI last season.

When Peters adds 22-year-old, switch-hitting (Mighty) Mike Young to an outfield picture that includes Gary Roenicke (28) and Dan Ford (30), he sees little problem. "Somebody asked me, 'What happens if Young goes crazy down here?' said Peters. "I told him: 'Sounds like a good, healthy problem.' "

On the horizon is catcher Al Pardo, 20, who had 17 homers and 86 RBI at Hagerstown last season. At shortstop, is 6-foot-3 Ricky Jones who, in three seasons, has jumped from rookie ball to hitting 13 homers in AAA; unlike many bad-body Orioles' farmhands of the recent past, Jones, Pardo, Young and the like are strapping, all-sport type athletes.

Most important, the Orioles' life blood--young pitching--no longer looks anemic. "Look at the competition for one pitching spot on the staff," said Peters, beaming. Don Welchel, Mike Boddicker, John Flinn and Al Ramirez have all amassed good, although not great, stats at Rochester that resemble those of Stewart at a comparable stage. Deeper in the pipeline, Mark Anthony Brown and Joe Kucharski may play larger roles than the Rochester quartet.

Reliever Brown, 9-2 with a 2.25 ERA in three leagues in '82, is an example of the new farm system. Like Mike Flanagan, he was raised in New Hampshire and played for the University of Massachusetts. In college, he was all-New England as a hitter, but only 9-10 as a pitcher. The Central Scouting Bureau didn't spot him, but Orioles' scouts did.

The Birds have, for the past six years, been a precariously maintained enclave of order in the turbulent baseball battlefield of free agentry.

Now, just as the departure of Weaver has many convinced that the Birds are about to plummet, the Orioles themselves think they foresee a different flight path.

Peters' optimism is unmistakable. Asked if the Orioles were contemplating any spring trades, Peters said, "If the Brewers get desperate to trade (MVP) Robin Yount, we'd listen. Otherwise, probably not."