Jose Altuve. Altuve is a 5’5, 170 pound second baseman signed by Houston from Venezuela in 2006. This legitimate Eddie Gaedel has had a meteoric rise through the Astros farm system this season. According to Baseball Almanac, only 60 players in baseball history have been 5’5 or shorter, so Altuve is joining a pretty exclusive club. If he becomes a solid contributor, he wouldn’t be the first good short baseball player, but they’re few and far between. Hack Wilson, single season RBI record holder, was only 5’6. Hall of Fame shortstop and commentator Phil Rizzuto was only 5’6 too. Hall of Fame second baseman and maligned commentator Joe Morgan was only 5’7. In current days, when asked to think of a short baseball player, most would probably say Dustin Pedroia. There must be something about second base.
Fans shouldn’t just focus on Altuve’s height though. This isn’t a Bill Veeck promotion. Altuve has the potential to be a regular starting player in the majors, and that’s no gimmick. Altuve developed a bit of a cult following in recent months thanks to Kevin Goldstein, Jason Parks and the Baseball Prospectus podcast. Last season, Goldstein first started talking about the uniqueness of him. Not only would he be interesting to follow, but that he had a real shot to be a big leaguer. He deserves credit for sticking his neck out on Altuve as he was the first prospect analyst to say that he would be a starting major leaguer last offseason.
The Astros are reeling in another horrible season. At 33-65, they have the worst record in baseball by a pretty comfortable margin. With a .337 winning percentage, they’re the only team in the league below .400, and obviously they’re not particularly close to that. With the upcoming ownership change, current Astros executives have been encouraged to cut payroll to 60 million for next season. That means some veterans will have to go soon. Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers will probably be on their way out soon, and they’d love to move Carlos Lee if someone would take him. One possibility is fan favorite and two time All-Star Hunter Pence, but the Astros would need a lot to move him. It’s clear that there’s not much going for this team, and they need a new fan favorite. Altuve can be that guy.
Altuve, while seen as a potential starter in the offseason, wasn’t considered to be a top prospect at the time. After his showing this year, both Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law included him in their midseason top 50 prospect lists, and at that point, it’s clear he’s for real. He’s a great contact hitter with surprisingly decent power for someone of his size. He has decent speed to maybe get 15-20 steals per season, but he has to improve his base stealing efficiency. His defense is solid at second. Scouts and analysts still had to be skeptical because of his size though. His skills are impressive, but players as small of him aren’t supposed to succeed professionally like he has. It’s just so unusual.
After signing with Houston as a 16 year old in 2006, Altuve made his debut in the Astros organization with their team in the Venezuelan Summer League. The VSL Astros are now defunct as part of a larger trend in baseball abandoning Venezuela. At this moment, Altuve is the only player on the 2007 team that has reached the majors, and it’s very possible that no one else will join him. In fact, Victor Garate appears to be the only other graduate of the Astros’ effort in that country. They’re making an effort in Latin America to improve the talent in the system, but it won’t be with an affiliate in Venezuela.
Altuve was one of the best hitters hitters in the league that year with the VSL Astros, especially considering his younger age compared to other players in the league. Mets infield prospect Ruben Tejada was another top performer in the league that year. The next year, Altuve was moved up to the Astros’ Appalachian League affiliate in Greeneville. He had a good, but not great season by his standards, batting a career full season low of .284 but showing decent power. His .753 OPS was well above league average, but he was topped by a number of older players on the roster.
Still only 19 years old and below the league average age, Altuve found himself back with Greeneville in 2009. He used his experience to tear up the league. His .916 OPS was second on the team, behind only J.D. Martinez who had limited at bats. It ranked 12th in the entire league, and only one player above him was his age or younger. No other player in the top 100 in the league in OPS has reached the majors yet which isn’t surprising since Altuve has risen through the minors faster than almost any other player recently. After 45 games, he was promoted to Tri-City of the New York Penn League where he struggled. That’s not surprising though since he was still only 19, and it’s a league mostly made up of more experienced former college players.
2010 is the season where Altuve really got in the map. It was his first chance to play in a full season league, and he took advantage. He batted over .300, stole a lot of bases and hit 11 home runs, very impressive for a young player in the South Atlantic League. Near the end of the season, the Astros promoted him to high-A Lancaster, an aggressive move. It was expected that his numbers would jump up in the hitting friendly Cal League, but that wasn’t quite the case. His slugging and power did increase as expected, and it was a successful 31 game stint.
Altuve’s 2011 would begin in Lancaster again, and to say he tore it up would be an understatement. He certainly benefited from playing home games at Clear Channel Stadium, but he was a great hitter on the road too. In 52 games, Altuve hit over .400 with 25 extra base hits. His walk rate is a bit low for some people, but for a player with great bat control that can hit anything and doesn’t strike out, it’s possible to get away with it. Two months into the season, it was clear that Altuve had nothing to prove in the Cal League. On 6/1, Altuve and double play partner Jonathan Villar each made their AA debut with Corpus Christi in the Texas League. It was certainly a memorable night for both. Altuve had three RBI and a home run, and Villar hit a walkoff home run.
On July 10th, Altuve played in the Futures Game. On a field with the best talent in minor league baseball, Altuve stood out. He batted second for the World roster and had two hits, including a double off top Diamondbacks pitching prospect Tyler Skaggs. Around this time, Ed Wade said that Altuve would be a major leaguer sooner rather than later, but I don’t know if anyone thought it would be this soon. He was batting .361 in 35 games with Corpus Christi and slugging .569. In his major league debut on the 20th, Altuve got his first ML hit off All-Star Tyler Clippard.
At just 21 years old, Altuve should have a long career in front of him. Long term if he settles in at the major league level, he’ll fit in nicely in Houston’s #2 hole with his ability to put the ball in play and hit the other way. He’s not going to turn the Astros around himself, no one could. However, building from within needs to be their goal, and Altuve is a start. He may have been rushed to the majors, but he’s handled aggressive promotions well throughout his career. The Astros were getting below average offensive production from second base, and Altuve should be able to match that. With Jeff Keppinger traded to San Francisco, why not give him a shot?
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