Altuve was signed by the Astros out of Venezuela in 2006. After a strong '07 in the Venezuelan Summer League, he moved up to North America in '08 and hit .284/.320/.433 in 40 games for Greenville in the Appalachian League. He returned to Greenville in '09 and hit .324/.408/.508 with 21 steals in just 45 games, earning him a promotion to Tri-City in the New York-Penn League, where he hit .250/.337/.316 in 2 games. He began '10 with Lexington in the Low-A South Atlantic League, hitting .308/.364/.445 with 39 steals and 11 homers, then moved up to High-A Lancaster in the Cal League and hit .276/.333/.457.
Returning to Lancaster for 2011, he hit a stunning .408/.451/.606 with 19 steals in 52 games. He continued his hot hitting after being promoted to the Texas League, hitting .361/.388/.569 for Corpus Christi, giving him an overall line of .389/.426/.591 with 24 steals, 26 walks, and 40 strikeouts in 357 at-bats this year.
Overall, in 382 minor league games, Altuve has hit .327/.386/.481.
His statistical performance is obviously outstanding, but Altuve presents a quandary for scouts. He's just 21 years old, and normally a player that age with these kinds of numbers would be all over prospect lists. But Altuve is a small guy, listed at 5-7, 170, in reality he's more like 5-5. He's a good athlete, with average speed but terrific instincts on the bases. Although he's not a walk machine, he makes contact, shows surprising power to all fields, and seems to have few weaknesses at the plate, laying off pitches he can't hit and punishing mistakes. He has plenty of bat speed and is not easy to overpower, contrary to the stereotype for smaller players.
Altuve is also a more-than-solid defensive player at second base, unusually reliable for his age. He doesn't have the range for shortstop, but his arm is strong enough that the Astros have given him some innings at third base. He plays with polish and enthusiasm, and scouts love his makeup.
The only negative for Altuve, and the only reason he didn't rank higher on pre-season prospect lists, is his size. Scouts simply have a hard time projecting a player who is this short as a good major leaguer. However, he began to win people over in 2010, and his performance in '11 has been so good that it is increasingly difficult to be skeptical.
Is Altuve the next David Eckstein or Dustin Pedroia? I don't think he'll have as much power as Pedroia has shown, but he should have more than Eckstein. At age 21, with just 35 games of Double-A under his belt and no Triple-A experience at all, it is wise to keep our short-term expectations in check. But in the medium and long runs, given his habit of exceeding expectations, I'm quite optimistic about Altuve.