Let's look at the players who were protected yesterday in advance of the Rule 5 Draft and those who weren't and try to figure out some of the thought processes that went into the decisions.
First of all, the Astros were able to protect more of the young players than I had anticipated with the removal of Mickey Storey (more about this later) and Scott Moore from the 40-man roster. The 40-man had stood at 31 players going in to yesterday, but those two moves reduced the starting number to 29 giving the Astros much more room to maneuver. I also anticipated that they would want to keep 3 to 4 spots open for the Rule 5 draft, waiver claims and free agent signings. The magic number for the Astros turned out to be 4 openings. Long story long, I thought they would be protecting about 5 players, but they were able to protect 7 instead.
Of the players protected, here's how they break down:
No-Brainers - RHP Jarred Cosart and LHP Brett Oberholtzer
To not protect Cosart and Oberholtzer would have constituted GM malpractice. Both of these pitchers are virtually ready to start at the major league level and would have been picked up in a nanosecond.
No-Brainers (if room was available) - RHP Jose Cisnero and RHP Ross Seaton
Although I personally don't think that Cisnero and Seaton are quite ready for prime-time, they are very close. I personally thought that Cisnero would be in greater danger of being taken in the Rule 5 simply because he would be more apt to stick on a 25-man roster for a full year in that I can see him working out of the bullpen if necessary. I cannot see Seaton as a bullpen pitcher and a drafting team having that luxury with him if he struggled in the starting rotation.
Position Players - OF Robbie Grossman and SS Jonathan Villar
Here's where things get interesting. It is much more common for teams to draft pitchers than position players in the Rule 5 draft. Why? As I alluded to before, it's a little easier to "hide" a pitcher in the bullpen, using them sparingly if they struggle. With a position player, a team really needs that player to contribute on a fairly regular basis. Otherwise, it not only hurts the team, it can hurt that player's development. So what this tells us is that the Astros are pretty high on Grossman and Villar because, as unlikely as it is for them to be taken in the Rule 5, they were willing to use roster spots to protect them. I understand Grossman more than Villar. Grossman had a pretty successful season at AA and could conceivably make the leap to a major league roster. Villar? Frankly I cannot see him sticking on a 25-man roster for an entire season. He is still very raw and personally, I think he would struggle mightily, but the Astros apparently aren't willing to take the chance.
A Special Case - RHP Chia-Jen Lo
I thought that there was a possibility that Lo would be protected if room allowed. He did not pitch above Advanced A in 2012 after coming off surgery, but he showed enough in the Arizona Fall League that he could draw interest from other teams. As a bullpen pitcher, it would be relatively easy to keep him on a 25-man roster for a full season.
Of the players that weren't protected:
Looking at relievers in conjunction with the Rule 5 draft is a bit of a double-edged sword. Yes, they are easier for a drafting team to keep on a 25-man roster for a full season, but they are also ultimately the most replaceable components on a team. That is a harsh reality, but other than the closer and possibly the set-up man, most teams do not keep a stable bullpen rotation for any appreciable length of time. So it is understandable that the Astros were willing to gamble (and lose) with Mickey Storey rather than risk losing a potential closer in Chia-Jen Lo. All one can really take away from the choices made is that the Astros value Fernando Rodriguez and Chia-Jen Lo more highly in their long-term plans than they do Storey and Jason Stoffel.
Judging from the comments on twitter yesterday, more people are alarmed by the choice not to protect Marc Krauss than any other position player. Frankly, I'm not that surprised by this. The Astros could only protect so many players. Krauss struggled a great deal in his first taste of AAA. I don't think it's likely that another team would take a chance that he's ready for the major leagues when he hasn't even adjusted to AAA yet. If I only had room to protect Grossman or Krauss, I would have made the same decision.
What would I have done differently? Given the same number of openings, I probably would have made the same choices except that I would have been sorely tempted to protect Carlos Perez instead of Jonathan Villar. I realize that he hasn't played above Advanced A, but Perez is one of the best catching prospects out there while I find it highly unlikely the still very raw Villar will be able to stick with a team. This one makes me nervous. The other possible change would be Jason Stoffel over Chia-Jen Lo. I'll admit, though, that if Lo has regained his pre-surgery form (and velocity), he would probably be the most likely player to be taken.
Some final thoughts ~
There are really two things at play in how we look at these moves. First of all, it really is incredibly difficult to keep a marginal player on a 25-man roster for a full season. The player has to be able to contribute unless the team is in a serious re-building mode such as the Astros have been. Otherwise, it's difficult to justify keeping a player who may struggle greatly at times on a roster without negatively impacting a team. Secondly, we, as fans, often value the talent in our minor league system more highly than front office personnel from other teams do. For example, is Marc Krauss a better player than someone they already have in their system? Are they willing to take a chance on that and use a roster spot that they could otherwise use to pick up a free agent?
The fact is that in 2011, 12 players were drafted in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft and 2 were returned. In 2010, 19 players were drafted in the Rule 5 draft and 11 were returned. And for every Johan Santana, there are a dozen Lance Pendletons. We're not talking about a lot of players who are being drafted year in and year out.
The strategy involved in finalizing the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft is all about determining calculated risks. It tells us more about who the Astros value highly than anything else. And if a player or two are drafted from the Astros, it also tells us that the Astros have more depth of talent than they have had in a while. And that is not necessarily a bad problem to have.