As Astros prepare for inevitable crossroads, Jose Altuve will remain a constant

HOUSTON — Jose Altuve is an anomaly, a man with more power than anyone his size should possess, perseverance only a few of his peers can rival and priorities outside of just earning a paycheck. The Houston Astros turned him away from a tryout at age 16 and he still turned into the team’s heartbeat, a lifeblood this franchise soon learned it can’t live without.

“When I got called up for the first time back in 2011, they told me that it was just something temporary until they found another second baseman,” Altuve said on Wednesday with a sheepish grin.

That search stopped sometime around 2012 and won’t resume any time soon. A five-year contract extension almost ensures Altuve will never wear another uniform and will complete a transformation this entire town has witnessed — from doubted to dominant, from a stocky slap-hitter into a sparkplug slugger responsible for some of this franchise’s most seminal moments.

Once a supposed stopgap second baseman, Altuve earned eight All-Star appearances, six Silver Sluggers, two World Series championships and an American League MVP award. He fielded the final out of the franchise’s first World Series and sent them to another with a walk-off home run that will be replayed for however long Houston fields a baseball team.

“His greatness is a mystery because it’s never-ending,” agent Scott Boras said.

Altuve’s presence persisted through teardown, scandal and the most successful period of Houston baseball history. Fans adore him. Houston mayor John Whitmire declared Wednesday “Jose Altuve Day,” in part an ode to Altuve’s jersey No. 27 on 2/7 and in part a portrait of how beloved this man has become in Houston.

Teammates talk about him with a reverence reserved for the sport’s elite. Eight of them sat in the back of a cramped press conference room on Wednesday, where Altuve made official what many long presumed.

“My wife and I had a lot of conversations about if we’re going to go somewhere else, if we’re going to stay here, and I think the best case scenario was always to stay here,” Altuve said. “I get to come back every day after night games and I get to see my daughters sleeping. I can wake up the next day and take them to school. That was the conversation where everything started and we decided to stay here in Houston and we’ll never move from here.”

Altuve and his wife, Nina, purchased their first Houston home in 2013. Both of their daughters were born here. The foundation he built, and the appreciation he harbored for this franchise giving him a chance, made this the city he never wanted to leave and a team he always wanted to lead.

“Houston is my home. I have obviously two homes: I grew up in Venezuela, my country. Every time I go there, I tell my wife ‘Let’s go home.’ And then when it’s time to come back, I tell her ‘Let’s come back home,’” Altuve said.

Altuve never intended to play elsewhere, even if the free-agent market this winter could have produced a more lucrative contract. His five-year, $125 million contract extension isn’t part of Boras’ standard operating procedure, but Altuve isn’t one of his conventional clients.

“I think you always know that the most important thing for an attorney to do for his clients is to listen to them. You want him to have what he wants most. Economics certainly figure into that, but really for Jose, it was about keeping the lineage, keeping a legacy. It was really, really important to him and Nina,” Boras said.

“Everything Jose wanted was here. You can counsel them on the economics and, obviously, the free market is never going to be what it is in the unilateral market, but for Jose, I don’t think that was the point of what he was doing.”

None of this is about money, though Altuve will become the first second baseman in major league history to earn $300 million when this deal ends after the 2029 season. Boras said Altuve has been preparing for this decision “probably for two years.” Altuve acknowledged he started to “kind of think about” playing elsewhere, but it’s difficult to believe that ever gained any actual traction.

After Altuve put the first known timetable on his playing career, parameters became easier to presume. Altuve said last March wants to play until he’s 40. This contract will run through his age-39 season. Boras acknowledged the length of the contract is crucial, especially as Altuve sits 953 hits away from 3,000. Averaging 159 across the next six seasons will get him there.

“You’re dealing with a remarkably humble man,” Boras said. “The toughest negotiation is with Jose Altuve, believe me. He’s someone that has a very modest viewpoint, but he’s very good with numbers, very good with data, very good with information. You give players information with the hope that they’ll give you a decision. Your job is to make sure they make an informed decision, it’s not to make their decision for them.”

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Alex Bregman projects to be the top free-agent third baseman after this season unless he agrees to an extension with Houston. (Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Altuve made one. Extending him felt almost expected, a matter of when instead of if. Inking him ignited more speculation around Alex Bregman, a fellow Boras client who will take a more traditional path toward free agency.

Bregman relocated to Arizona and is training there this offseason, so he did not attend Wednesday’s celebration of Altuve. Before it began, Boras said he and general manager Dana Brown discussed Bregman’s contract status.

Boras said Bregman remains “open to listening to whatever the Astros have to say,” but the parallels between him and Altuve are nonexistent. Bregman will turn 30 next month and, though he has said he’d welcome a return to Houston, he has not been nearly as direct as Altuve.

“Obviously, (Bregman) is in more of a normal free-agency dynamic that you would see age-wise,” Boras said. “Obviously that has more impact in the free-agent market for evaluation and length of contract and all those things. He’s a rather prestigious player.”

So is Altuve, but he brought a different set of priorities. Presuming Bregman takes the traditional free-agency track Boras described, retaining him will require the sort of commitment owner Jim Crane has never made. Boras is known for creating or exceeding established position player markets. Four other third basemen will enter this season with contracts higher than $210 million in total value.

Crane has never given anything longer than a six-year extension, nor has he exceeded $150 million. He was absent on Wednesday, too, while attending the MLB owner’s meetings in Orlando. In a video message, Crane congratulated Altuve and said, “We’re really looking forward to you ending your career in Houston, Texas.”

“Jose is the sparkplug for this club. He is the heart and soul of this club,” Brown said. “When you have someone like that, you want to keep them within that core of your players because of his leadership abilities, talent and his makeup is pretty special.”

Keeping that core intact could remedy the club’s impending crossroads. Questions linger about the sustainability of Houston’s success, especially as aging creeps into its core and attrition is expected. Altuve is the one constant that will remain.

“He’s beyond rare. He is something that, frankly, modernly just doesn’t exist,” Boras said. “And there’s more to come.”

(Top photo of Jose Altuve: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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