Anybody who wants to say that the Orioles are cheap can go right ahead. They can't disprove it. Everything they have done, and have not done, since Eli Jacobs bought the team is consistent with that theory.

On the other hand, nobody can prove that the Orioles' pattern of low-budget decisions is unwise. Not yet anyway.

While teams all over baseball are giving Christmas gifts to their fans, the Orioles look Scrooge-ish. George Bell, Kirk Gibson, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Dave Righetti and a dozen other free agents changed teams at the winter meetings this week. Before that, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Boddicker and others jumped teams. Bob Welch, Jack Clark and many more soon will make decisions.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have decided to stick out their tongue at modern times, ignore their critics and cleave to their old-fashioned player-development ways. They know it'll take another year or two for them to be proven right or wrong.

If they're right, they will be the toast of baseball -- like the '87 Twins or the '90 Pirates, who won without doing much wild purchasing of players.

But, if the Orioles are wrong, if they move into publicly financed Camden Yards in 1992 with a lousy team, large profits and one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, Jacobs may be roasted. Those Redskins hog snout masks could sell like crabcakes in Bal'mer.

Some say the Orioles will never be a contender because they won't pay $6 million for three years for a Franklin Stubbs or Matt Young. This week, the Orioles decided they wouldn't pay such going rates for a career .236 hitter or a 32-year-old with one of the worst career winning percentages (.395) ever.

Those who enjoy history might recall that the first time free agent madness hit in the late '70s, the Orioles abstained -- except for the occasional bargain like Steve Stone -- and they won more games than anybody for years.

To those with such contrarian tastes, the low-budget signing of 39-year-old Dwight Evans (who has 10 more RBI than Strawberry in the past five years) may provide resonance and piquancy. The Orioles won't ask too much of Evans, who has back problems -- just some designated hitting, pinch-hitting and, maybe, a little right field duty. Still, Evans's recent RBI stats are dazzling: 123, 111, 100 and 63. Is the next number in this sequence 90 or 30?

On the issue of whether the Orioles are cheap or smart, team president Larry Lucchino said yesterday: "In some ways, the conclusion on both those issues is probably premature.

"If you start the clock running on us after the 0-21 streak in '88, then we have progressed toward an intelligent, long-range plan of scouting and player development. That's how the Orioles used to do things. But the job's not finished.

"Are we cheap, foolish, shortsighted? Should we have gone out and grabbed some pitching or power? We have a healthy skepticism about building around free agents," said Lucchino, who saw how little good Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy, Don Aase and Juan Beniquez once did the Orioles. "You don't build a house from the roof down."

Orioles followers want one simple question answered. In recent weeks, who said, "No." The team's baseball people? Or Jacobs and his wallet?

"It came more from this end. I'll take that responsibility," said General Manager Roland Hemond yesterday. "When you're trying to build the way we are, nothing is worse than clogging the pipeline. Young players need a chance to play."

Is Hemond, the good soldier, taking a bullet for the owner? After all, when Jacobs bought the team in '89 his first experience was of a bunch of low-paid kids shocking the sports world. Might he not have drawn too large a conclusion from that initial season?

Hemond argues that the time is not ripe for spending, unless both the player and the price are right.

"Look what Jose Mesa showed us in September. If we'd signed a big free agent the previous year, even if he'd lost 19 games, he'd probably still have been in the rotation. We tell our minor leaguers, 'Work hard. It'll pay off.' But if you sign somebody from outside the organization to a five-year deal, what message are you sending?"

While it's true that no available free agent looked like a perfect Orioles fit, a case can be made for imperfect acquisitions. Stubbs had 23 homers and 71 RBI in 448 at-bats while playing in the huge Astrodome last year. What if Kirk Gibson, who came back to 26 steals in half a season last year, leads the Royals to the pennant in '91? Aren't the Orioles going to feel silly that they didn't at least make him an offer better than Kansas City's modest $3.3 million for two years? Above all, why no spin-your-head competitive offers to anybody.

Meanwhile, the Orioles may still lose Mickey Tettleton (to whom they offered arbitration yesterday). If the Orioles had been more generous earlier, might they not have re-signed both Tettleton and Phil Bradley -- team leaders in '89 -- before negotiations turned bitter last summer? Those spring-of-'90 prices sure look like bargains now. And the Orioles look penny- wise and pound-foolish.

The feeling here, until further evidence arrives, is that the Orioles' front office has charted a wise course, but that the team's ownership is probably quite cheap.

So far, little damage has been done. However, the time will come when Ben McDonald and Gregg Olson will have to be re-signed for enormous sums. It should be done without a second thought. By next winter, Hemond probably will know what "final pieces of the puzzle" the Orioles need to be a contender. That price should be paid cheerfully too.

In Los Angeles, fans await the Straw Man. In Kansas City, they don't know whom to gawk at first -- Gibson or Boddicker. Giants faithful are drunk with holiday cheer over McGee, Righetti and Bud Black. In Baltimore, fans get to wonder whether Dewey Evans can make it to right field on opening day without a chiropractor in attendance.

The Orioles are doing things the Orioles Way once more. But these days, it still tastes a lot like castor oil.