MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Who's in first? Top teams may surprise you

Who's in first? Top teams may surprise you

So this is what competitive balance looks like: Surprise leaders everywhere throughout the National and American Leagues. As a matter of fact, here were the leaders for each division entering play on Friday, and you may gasp now or later. The Astros, the Twins, the Yankees, the Rockies, the Brewers and the Nationals.

The Nationals? Yep, and I'll explain.

In fact, I'll explain all of this, starting with the American League West, where the Astros have the best record in baseball. Then again, the Astros have been a trendy pick for a while. Three years ago, they were even shown celebrating on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the magazine said they would capture the World Series in 2017.

Let's see. What year is this? Uh huh, and don't laugh. Since the Cubs are defending World Series champions for the first time in 108 years after an epic World Series against the Indians (the same Indians who joined the Cubs in struggling for decades), anything is possible.

Still, it's shocking the Astros are winning nearly 71 percent of their games with a stifling pitching staff and a bruising offense. Only the Dodgers have a better team ERA than the Astros' mark of 3.41, and you can attribute much of their success on the mound to Dallas Keuchel (7-0, 1.84 ERA) and Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1, 2.65) throwing at the top of their pitching rotation.

As for hitting, the Astros lead the Major Leagues with a run differential of plus-61, which means they've been pounding foes like crazy despite a slow start from Jose Altuve, their two-time AL batting champion.

Now Altuve is back to his vintage self. He had a pair of triples and a double Wednesday night in Miami to raise his batting average to around his career average (.311 now and .310 for his career) while sending the Astros to a three-game sweep of the Marlins for their ninth victory in 10 games.

Twins' 16 HRs tie club record

The Twins aren't sizzling as much as the Astros. Even so, in the AL Central, home of an Indians team that grabbed the league's pennant last season, the 2015 World Series champion Royals, a highly talented Tigers roster and the competitive White Sox, none of them lead the division.

It's the Twins, losers of 103 games last season.

This first-place thing makes no sense for the Twins for a couple of reasons. First, they aren't among the Major League leaders in pitching or hitting. Second, they have many of the same players from last year's bunch who struggled in many aspects of the game.

That said, here's a microcosm of why the Twins sitting in the penthouse of the AL Central makes total sense: The transformation of Jose Berrios. He was a bust in 2016 during his rookie year (8.02 ERA in 11 starts), but during Thursday night's 2-0 win for the Twins over the Rockies in Colorado, he struck out 11 in 7 2/3 innings. He is 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA. There also is Miguel Sano, who leads the team in batting average (.293), homers (10) and RBIs (30) after struggling at the plate last year along the way to hitting .236.

Judge belts his 14th home run

Which brings us to the Yankees. Didn't they slide into rebuilding mode the last few years, with Derek Jeter retiring, Alex Rodriguez going from the clubhouse to the front office and ownership looking for a friendlier luxury tax?

All of that happened for the Yankees, but they've still found ways to lead the AL East with much help from Joe Girardi, a master at managing veterans and youngsters. Elsewhere, they have the suddenly mighty Aaron Judge and his titanic homers. He has 14 of them, and he joins Starlin Castro (.348 batting average), starting pitcher Michael Pineda (55 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings) and an impressive bullpen as the keys to the Yankees' rise.

Consider, too, the Yankees have remained vibrant throughout the season despite spending nearly a month without 2016 catching and hitting sensation Gary Sanchez, and they also watched first baseman Greg Bird struggle badly at the plate before heading to the disabled list.

Now super closer Aroldis Chapman joins Bird on the DL since he is out four to six weeks with a rotator cuff strain, but no worries. The Yankees have enough depth in the bullpen to handle it. Dellin Betances is Chapman's replacement, and he has 22 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings and a 0.73 ERA.

Holland earns save, seals win

If we're talking historically, the Rockies don't have anything close to that Yankees type of pitching among relievers or starters, because Coors Field is a launching pad for batted balls. But get this: First-year Rockies closer Greg Holland is 18-for-18 in save situations, and the rest of the bullpen is pretty good.

What helps those Colorado relievers (along with its starters, for that matter) is a defense that has gone from shaky last season to superb right now, led by third baseman Nolan Arenado and his four Gold Gloves.

You know the Rockies can hit, because they always do. It's just that Carlos Gonzalez struggled offensively until recently. Then there is the smoking bat of Mark Reynolds, a journeyman in his 11th season. He joined the Rockies during the offseason as a backup, but he is an early candidate for National League Comeback Player of the Year. In addition to hitting .319, he ranks fifth in the NL in homers with 12, and he is tied for third in RBIs with 35.

Thames, Broxton homer in the 1st

The Brewers also have impressive hitters. Lots of them. The leaders of the NL Central are threatening to resurrect the days of Harvey's Wallbangers, when they battered pitchers so consistently for manager Harvey Kuenn that they won the pennant in 1982 during their AL days.

Nobody in baseball has more homers than the 65 of the current Brewers. With much help from Eric Thames (Eric, who?), they are second behind the Nationals in the Major Leagues with 237 runs scored.

Now about Thames: After three years of playing in obscurity in South Korea, he signed with the Brewers during the offseason, and now the 30-year-old slugger leads Milwaukee in batting average (.312), homers (13) and thrilling people with his power. The Brewers also are spurred by the likes of shortstop Eric Sogard, who finished Thursday night in San Diego with his second four-hit game in three days while collecting three RBIs. He is batting .476 (10-for-21) since he was promoted last week from Triple-A.

The Brewers' pitching is decent, especially since closer Corey Knebel delivers enough heat to have batters hitting just .188 against him. He has at least one strikeout in each of his last 21 appearances.

Harper's long two-run homer

Speaking of closers, the Nationals need one. That's about all they need, and they're likely working on finding one despite leading the NL East by eight games, which is the surprise involving Washington here.

Even though the Nationals were among the favorites to take the NL East, the Mets and the Marlins were expected to sit closer toward the top of the division, but neither they nor anybody else has the firepower generated by Washington's lineup. With Ryan Zimmerman in the midst of a renaissance season and Bryce Harper swinging like Bryce Harper, Washington leads the Major Leagues in nearly every offensive category of significance.

Only eight Major League teams have a higher team ERA than the Nationals, but they are second in quality starts with 26. That's because few teams can match a sterling rotation led by Max Scherzer (4-2, 2.80 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 2.47 ERA) and Stephen Strasburg (4-1, 3.42 ERA).

Dusty Baker also keeps everybody loose as manager, and at this rate, his Nationals may lead the NL East by double digits before Memorial Day. You may gasp some more.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.