HOUSTON -- With a Minor League system now regarded as one of the deepest in baseball, the Astros faced some tough decisions this week in terms of which players to protect from next month's Rule 5 Draft.
The Astros on Thursday announced they had added left-handed pitcher Luis Cruz, outfielder Domingo Santana and right-handed pitcher Asher Wojciechowski to their 40-man roster, which means they'll come to Major League camp next spring with the Astros.
Among the players that will be left exposed in the Rule 5 Draft are outfielders J.D. Martinez and Austin Wates; former first-round pick Jiovanni Mier; pitchers Eric Berger, Jake Buchanan, Matt Heidenreich, Eric Berger, Ross Seaton, Jason Stoffel and Alex Sogard; and slugger Telvin Nash.
"They're really always tough decisions," Astros assistant general manager David Stearns said. "I think regardless of how your system may be ranked externally, every team always struggles with roster protection decisions and everyone wishes they could protect 45, 47 guys, and this year is no different. We had to make some very difficult decisions. More than anything, we're excited to add the three guys we added. We think they're going to be Astros for a long time."
With the addition of Cruz, Santana and Wojciechowski, the Astros' 40-man roster is now at 37 players, giving them space to make some additions in the coming weeks.
"The three roster spots gives us some flexibility through the offseason to allow us to maintain the players we currently have on the roster and acquire others through trades or signing or by any other method," Stearns said. "That's part of our strategy: to leave yourself with roster flexibility."
Players first signed at age 18 must be added to 40-man rosters within five seasons or they become eligible to be drafted by other organizations through the Rule 5 process. Players signed at 19 years or older have to be protected within four seasons. Clubs pay $50,000 to select a player in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft, slated to take place on Dec. 12. If that player doesn't stay on the 25-man roster for the full season, he must be offered back to his former team for $25,000.
In other words, an international player or high school draftee signed in 2009, assuming they were 18 or under as of June 5 of that year, must be protected. A college player taken in the 2010 Draft is in the same boat.
The Astros will have the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 12 at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla., like they did last year when they took pitcher Josh Fields with the No. 1 pick. Stearns said it's too soon to know if they will make a pick this year.
"It's far enough away so that we have some time to make those decisions," he said. "Today's the first day we have access to all the information to who's going to be available for the Rule 5 Draft. We'll begin weeding through that today."
Cruz, 23, combined to post a 10-6 record with two saves and a 4.56 ERA in 31 games, including 20 starts, with Double-A Corpus Christi and Class A Lancaster in 2013. He struck out 150 in his 130 1/3 innings and led all Astros Minor League pitchers in strikeouts.
Cruz spent the majority of his season at Lancaster before being promoted to Corpus Christi in late August. With the Hooks, Cruz made four appearances (two starts), posting a 2-0 record with a complete game and a 0.53 ERA while allowing just five hits and fanning 21 in 17 innings. Cruz was originally a ninth-round pick by Houston out of Puerto Rico in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
Santana, 21, hit .252 with 23 doubles, 25 home runs, 64 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 112 games with Corpus Christi in 2013. Santana played the entire season as the second-youngest player in the Texas League and finished third in the league in home runs and slugging percentage (.498), tied for third in extra-base hits (50) and fourth in OPS (.842).
Santana, ranked by MLB.com as the Astros' No. 9 prospect, was originally acquired by Houston as one of four players the club received from Philadelphia in exchange for outfielder Hunter Pence on July 29, 2011.
Wojciechowski posted an 11-8 record with two complete games, one save and a 3.32 ERA in 28 games (24 starts) combined with Triple-A Oklahoma City and Corpus Christi in 2013. The 24-year-old starter began his season at Corpus Christi with four scoreless appearances.
Wojciechowski was moved up to Oklahoma City on May 2 and went 9-7 with a 3.56 ERA in 22 outings to finish out his season with the RedHawks. The former supplemental first-round pick (41st overall in 2010) was originally acquired by Houston from Toronto as a piece in the Astros' 10-player trade with the Blue Jays in July 2012.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.