DENVER — Nolan Arenado is so locked in at the moment he's even belting light-hearted questions about being spring training's top hitter out of the park.
"Is there an MVP for that?" the Colorado Rockies third baseman playfully responded, with his average well north of .500 in Cactus League play.
Sorry, Nolan, there's really not. But keep hitting anywhere like this — he was also among the spring leaders in homers — and there could be one come October. The 24-year-old Arenado is establishing himself as one of the top young hitters in the game, up there with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant.
Even more, Arenado is becoming a leader in the clubhouse as he tries to help the Rockies avoid a sixth straight losing season.
"Nothing really surprises me with the kid. He wants to be great. He has a real, real desire to be great," said manager Walt Weiss, who's in the final year of his contract. "He has to be in that conversation of the very best young players in all of baseball."
No question about that. Big questions about shortstop, though.
The Rockies are looking to fill the gap with Jose Reyes under investigation in accordance with baseball's new domestic violence policy. The four-time All-Star was placed on paid leave this spring pending completion of criminal proceedings. He was arrested in Hawaii on Oct. 31 following an argument with his wife and pleaded not guilty to a charge of abuse of a family or household member.
His trial was scheduled to start April 4 — the day the Rockies open the season at Arizona — but prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges with Reyes' wife not cooperating. The Rockies are expected to wait until Major League Baseball decides on any discipline before addressing the issue.
With Reyes gone, Trevor Story has stepped into the lineup, showing power and an ability to hit for average at a position occupied for years by Troy Tulowitzki until the star slugger was traded to Toronto last summer.
"It's been good to have some success, but we still have a long way to go," Story said.
The real story, though, revolves around Arenado. Always known for his highlight grabs in the field — winning three straight Gold Glove awards — Arenado broke out at the plate last season as he hit .287 with 42 homers and 130 RBIs. He'll form a nice one-two punch with slugger Carlos Gonzalez.
"I'm seeing the ball well and that's something I want to carry to the season," Arenado said.
Things to know as the Rockies try to rebound from a 68-94 season:
WHAT A RELIEF?: Colorado spent most of the offseason revamping one of baseball's worst bullpens. They traded outfielder Corey Dickerson to Tampa Bay for Jake McGee, and signed veterans Jason Motte and Chad Qualls. Motte is dealing with a strained shoulder. The bullpen could receive a boost around the All-Star break with the return of Adam Ottavino, who's coming back from Tommy John surgery.
GRAY MATTER: Right-hander Jon Gray won't be ready for the start of the season after suffering an abdominal strain in spring training. The prized prospect will be a big part of the rotation once he returns. Until then, the rotation sets up something like this: Jorge De La Rosa, Chad Bettis, Tyler Chatwood, Jordan Lyles and Christian Bergman.
SWING FOR THE FENCES: Coors Field will look a little different this season with the team raising the outfield walls in two spots. Colorado hit 102 of its 186 homers at the hitter friendly park last season.
PARRA'S SPOT: That new face in left field will be Gerardo Parra, who was brought in on a three-year, $27.5 million deal. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder," Weiss said. "He's one of those guys that used to tick you off when you're on the other side, but for all the right reasons. You want those guys around. It's contagious, the way he plays the game."
GOLD GLOVE MENTORS: Story is leaning on Arenado and second baseman DJ LeMahieu as he gets acclimated to shortstop. "I see their hard work and preparation and that rubs off on me," the 23-year-old Story said. "It's been great for me to be around those guys and pick their brain about what makes them great."
AP freelance writer Mike Cranston contributed from Scottsdale, Arizona.