By leaving three spots open on the 40-man roster, the Astros gave themselves some flexibility to sign free agents. Englebrook, Nevarez, Villar and Valdez will be with the Major League club at Spring Training next year, with Englebrook and Valdez the mostly likely to compete for a roster spot.
"First of all, the kids from within the organization all have earned the opportunity," Houston general manager Ed Wade said. "Englebrook has been in the organization for a while. There's been somewhat of an ongoing discussion with regards to protecting him on the roster, and the prevailing sentiment was he's made a lot of progress the way he pitched during the season and also in the Arizona Fall League."
Englebrook, 27, went 3-1 with nine saves and a 4.25 ERA in 30 relief appearances last season between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Round Rock. The 6-foot-8 pitcher spent the majority of the season at Corpus Christi, going 2-0 with a 3.16 ERA in 21 games.
Nevarez, 22, was 2-4 with 13 saves and a 2.28 ERA in 42 combined appearances with Class A Hickory and Class A Lexington last season. He was acquired along with infielder Jose Vallejo from the Texas Rangers in August in exchange for catcher Ivan Rodriguez. He appeared in eight games at Lexington, throwing 8 1/3 scoreless innings.
"Nevarez was the key piece in the Pudge Rodriguez trade, and we think the kid's got closer stuff," Wade said. "It was a no-brainer to protect him. I don't think there was any chance he would have gotten through the Rule 5 Draft without someone claiming him."
Villar, 22, pitched in 43 games, including three starts, for Class A Lexington. He went 3-4 with five saves and a 2.60 ERA and led all Lexington relievers with 109 strikeouts. Signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2005, he walked only 18 batters in 90 innings.
"We think all three guys have a lot of upside," Wade said. "Nevarez and Villar fit perfectly in the mix of kids we've been bragging about the last couple of years, and it made all the sense the to make sure we didn't lose him."
Valdez, 26, spent last season in the New York Yankees' organization, splitting time between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. In 43 games, he went 3-2 with 10 saves and a 3.43 ERA. He's currently pitching for Licey in the Dominican Winter League and is 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 14 games.
"The Valdez kid threw well last season, and he's lighting up the Dominican Winter League," Wade said. "We had a couple of guys see him down there and they felt this kid had a chance to be a real significant contributor to the back end of the bullpen. We gave him a roster spot as a Minor League free agent, which is a rarity."
Among the players left unprotected were two of the Astros' biggest offensive producers last season in the Minor Leagues -- outfielder Drew Locke and infielder Koby Clemens. Locke hit .338 with 20 homers and 109 RBIs at Corpus Christi, and Clemens hit .345 with 22 homers and 121 RBIs at Lancaster.
Teams selecting players in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft must pay the original team $50,000 and keep him on the 25-man roster the entire season. If the team decides it doesn't want the player, the player must clear waivers and be offered back to the original team for half the price.
"We had discussions about a lot of guys," Wade said. "When you try to create flexibility on your roster, you try to put yourself in the position of the other GMs and [you have to ask] is it realistic to think that somebody is going to take a player in the Rule 5 Draft and keep him in the big leagues for an entire season?
"In every year I've been in this position, Philadelphia and here, I've started these discussions saying that. You need to keep in mind when you go through this process, somebody taking this player in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft has to be able to keep them on the big league roster for the entire year. That tends to sober up the room."
Players such as Locke and Clemens and other Minor Leaguers could be taken in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5
Draft, but teams use that process to simply fill out Minor League rosters.