As building block of future, Altuve sees promise
Despite midseason dropoff, second baseman has chance to put up career numbers
The years of stripping down the Astros' roster through trade after trade finally reached the point this summer where there was nowhere left to go but to build things back up.
Most of the team's veterans had been moved onto other clubs, with popular homegrown players like Lance Berkman and Hunter Pence winning a World Series after leaving Houston. Those who remained were left to muddle their way through the tough points of the Astros' rebuilding project that will this season likely produce a third consecutive 100-loss campaign.
The results of all the deals pulled off by former general manager Ed Wade and current general manager Jeff Luhnow are a farm system infused with so much talent from other clubs and from the Draft that it's now considered one of the best in baseball.
There was also the pledge from owner Jim Crane that the team would eventually begin to increase its league-low payroll.
Somewhere along the line, Houston identified second baseman Jose Altuve as one of the pieces the club felt could be a key building block going forward. And in July, the Astros made their first significant commitment to the future by signing Altuve to a four-year, $12.5 million contract extension through 2017, with two club options for $6 million and $6.5 million.
Altuve, an All-Star last season in the team's final year in the National League, is off to a torrid start in September, despite going 0-for-5 in Wednesday's 6-1 win over the Mariners, and could put up the best numbers of his career despite a midseason lull.
"Right now, we have about 20 games left , and the only thing I'm thinking about is getting on base and finishing strong and scoring some runs and trying to win some games," Altuve said. "After the season, OK, we'll see what aspect I'll have to get better at, and I'll keep working in the offseason to get better next year and bring more good things for the team."
Altuve, 23, is hitting .279 with four homers and a career-high 49 RBIs, and he is hitting .412 (21-for-51) in September, which ranks fifth in the American League in that span. He leads the Majors in hits for the month (21) and ranks fifth in the AL this season with a career-high 35 steals. Altuve is 10 hits away from tying his career high of 167 set last year. He's finishing the season with a flourish after hitting .200 (22-for-110) in August and .258 in July.
Astros manager Bo Porter says the quadriceps injury that forced Altuve to leave a game on July 27 lingered into much of August and affected his performance on the field. It wasn't until Porter put him in the lineup at designated hitter in consecutive games Aug. 24 and 25 that Porter believes Altuve was able to get healthy.
"Now, at the end of the season, he's healthy, because we kind of took care of it and monitored it the right way," Porter said.
Porter has learned never to ask Altuve whether he wants a day off, because the answer will always be the same -- not a chance. But he knows a high-energy player like Altuve can tend to wear down at the end of the season.
"Just watching the games I watched from last year, it looked like he got tired at the end of the year," Porter said. "It was something that was a concern of mine, and I talked to him about it, that we were going to try to keep him as fresh as possible."
Porter also believes contract negotiations might have been weighing on Altuve.
"It can really wear on you," Porter said. "You want to get it done, but there are so many areas to get by, and it takes time. Throughout the course of it taking place -- not that his mind was not on his performance -- I think it was human that it affected him a little bit. Now that the contract extension is behind him and he knows he's going to be here, he's back to playing the game and being the guy that he was before all the extensions took place."
The Astros backed up their monetary commitment to Altuve a month later with an under-the-radar move. Delino DeShields Jr., ranked by MLB.com as the club's No. 7 prospect, will be moved to the outfield in the Arizona Fall League after spending the previous two years at second base. Altuve is the man at second.
"I hope to see him soon on the team," Altuve said of DeShields, who was at Class A Lancaster this year. "He's a really good player, and I know when he gets to the team he's going to bring a lot of energy and a lot of speed, and it's going to be good. I can't wait for him to be here."
Now that he's entrenched in Houston for the next year, Altuve looks around the clubhouse and sees promise. He's thrilled about the performances of young starting pitchers Jarred Cosart, Brad Peacock and Brett Oberholtzer, and he knows the high level of talent in the Minor Leagues.
Altuve can't help but be excited about the thoughts of playing with No. 3-ranked prospect George Springer, an outfielder who hit 37 homers and stole 45 bases between Double-A and Triple-A this year and will likely be the Opening Day starter in center field. Slugging first baseman Jonathan Singleton could help the club next year, too.
The future, Altuve says, looks bright, and he figures to be as big a part of it as anyone.
"I know they're going to be on the team soon," Altuve said. "Those guys have a lot of talent, and with the guys we have that are already here, we're going to be a really exciting team and a really good team and win some games."