AP Photo
March 02, 2016

KISSIMMEE, Florida (AP) Jose Altuve is one of only a handful of remaining Astros who endured the team's rebuilding project.

So it makes sense that the All-Star second baseman appreciated Houston's return to the postseason last year a little more than most, and a reason why he's so eager to help the team do even more in 2016.

''It means a lot,'' Altuve said. ''It was a really good year. It was something that we battled for. We wanted to be a playoff team. Nobody thought it was going to be last year, but we've got the team to repeat it.''

Altuve's play was instrumental in helping Houston to its first playoff appearance since 2005.

The Astros beat the Yankees in the wild-card game before falling to eventual champion Kansas City in the American League Division Series.

The three-time All-Star piled up 200 hits to lead the AL in that category for the second straight season. He won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for a season where he was third in the AL with a .313 average and led the AL for the second straight season by stealing 38 bases.

In his fourth full year in the majors in 2015 his stellar work was somewhat overshadowed by the emergence of shortstop Carlos Correa, who was the AL Rookie of the Year, and left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who picked up his first AL Cy Young award.

It was a stark contrast from his first two full seasons with the Astros when he was basically the only bright spot on teams that lost 107 games in 2012 and a franchise-worst 111 games the following year.

Though the spotlight may have shifted away from Altuve a bit last year, his work was in no way overlooked by the team.

''When you lead the league in hits it's pretty exciting to have him be your sparkplug,'' manager A.J. Hinch said.

''There's no doubt that he helps us get where we want to get. When he's playing well we're usually playing well as a team. And now we've got him surrounded by a lot of guys who can ease a little bit of the burden.''

Altuve recounted a moment the day after Houston advanced to the ALDS. It was then that he reflected on his time with the Astros and far they'd come since their three straight 100-loss seasons when they were baseball's laughingstock and often referred to as the ''Lastros'' for their perennial spot at the bottom of the standings.

''I was like: `Wow this is what we want. This is a dream come true,''' he said smiling at the memory. ''It was crazy, absolutely. All the fans, all the people were really happy for us. It was hard to believe it, but we earned it and I think we deserved it, too.''

Altuve is only 25, but on this young team he's one of the elder statesmen among Houston's position players, and gets a kick out of seeing the rookies succeed.

''I'm really only like two or three years older than those guys, but I've been here a little bit more and I get excited when they do good,'' he said.

As Altuve prepares for the new season he finds himself in an unfamiliar position.

Being part of a team favored to reach the playoffs for the first time in his career feels a bit strange for the former underdog who was repeatedly told that at 5-foot-5 he was too small to play in the majors.

''Now the expectations are really high,'' he said. ''We have to keep a low profile. We don't want to go out there and believe and think we're better than anyone else because we've got 29 more teams in the big leagues that are working really hard as we're working hard. So we just have to go out there and show people what we can do ... and don't take it for granted.''

Houston returns most of its team from last season and Altuve loves the chemistry in the clubhouse. He describes the 25-man roster as ''25 players in one player'' and promises that the Astros won't let up after last year's surprising success.

''Everybody is standing together,'' he said, ''and we just do everything for each other.''

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