By: Joe Pohoryles
Today, the first full day of March Madness was supposed to take place. Instead, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has stopped the sports world in its tracks. NFL free agency is buzzing, but there are few leagues with actual gameplay to watch.
To stay in the spirit of bracket season, I have constructed a 32-team bracket built to determine the most popular athlete in DC sports. Separated into four regions, each making up the four major teams, a favorite athlete can be narrowed down. Combined with the Wizards region are the ‘Wildcards,’ representing athletes from the non-major teams. The Wildcards are with the Wizards because NBA rosters hold 12-15 players, which would give a disproportionate amount of spots to Wizards players, compared to the roster sizes of the other three teams. Since there are other athletes in DC more deserving of a spot than the eighth-most liked player on the Wizards, the Wizards and Wildcards each take up four spots in their own region.
In addition, the eighth-seed in the Wizards/Wildcards region is blank, allowing you to insert any DC athlete of your choosing if one of your favorites is not already featured on the bracket.
The seeding is determined by social media following, more specifically Instagram. (Any players that do not have Instagram accounts were substituted with Twitter.) To reiterate, the seeding is NOT based on my own personal opinion, but rather based on how popular the player is on social media. I find this to be a better form of initially ranking as opposed to just randomly seeding. It shows which players are generally favorited compared to others, and any “upsets” could rightfully be considered such, as your own opinion would differ from the consensus.
Below I will be breaking down my own personal selections, but I’d love to hear your opinions. Feel free to share your thoughts in a comment on this post, or reach out to me on Twitter (@Joe_Poho) or Instagram (@joepoho). I may even publish some of the submissions. Happy bracketing!
(1) Alex Ovechkin vs. (8) John Carlson/(8) Lars Eller
Although Lars Eller will always hold a special place in Caps fans’ hearts for his go-ahead goal in the Stanley Cup-clinching Game 5 win, John Carlson has been the face of the defense for a long time now, and the American hockey players always get my extra support, so Carlson wins the “play-in” game for me. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter.
Alex Ovechkin wins easily here. He’s been the face of the franchise, and one of the league’s few faces for close to 15 years now. He’ll go down as one of the all-time greats, and will be even more legendary if he can break the all-time goal scoring record. Though it came after years of pain, he finally delivered a championship to the Capitals for the first time in the team’s then-44 year history, and also the first for the entire city in over 25 years. Spoiler alert: he’s a strong contender for the “championship.” He is one of my all-time favorites. How could he not be?
Winner: (1) Alex Ovechkin
(4) Tom Wilson vs. (5) Nicklas Backstrom
This entire ‘Capitals’ region is extremely difficult for me to narrow down, as I love every player on this bracket, and this match-up is probably one of the hardest. Tom Wilson is hated by nearly every other fanbase, but his big hits that endeared fans have developed into top-line production. Other fanbases may not be able to get over his checkered past, but the reality is that at just 25, Wilson will soon have an even larger profile as the rest of the core ages around him. He may even be wearing the ‘C’ on his sweater one day.
But there’s no way I can knock out Nicklas Backstrom, not this early. A criminally underrated player across the league, Backstrom has appeared in just one All-Star Game, but has consistently been one of the league’s best passers. Him and Ovi have been partners in crime from the start, and the future Hall of Famer will always be an all-time favorite for me.
Winner: (5) Nicklas Backstrom
(3) TJ Oshie vs. (6) Jakub Vrana
TJ Oshie became a household name in the hockey world before he joined the Caps, as his shoot-out heroics in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics helped vault Team USA past Russia in their group stage match-up. Once he got traded to the Caps in 2015, I was super excited to have this Olympic hero in DC. His work ethic and play-making on the ice combined with his personality off it make him an extremely likable player, and one of my personal favorites on the team.
Jakub Vrana is one of the young guns who will have a large stake in the future of the franchise. He helped the Caps win the Cup in 2018 as a rookie, scoring the first goal in the Game 5 clincher. The 24-year-old has elevated his play every season, and still has room to grow. He has an exciting future ahead, but it’s Oshie who overtakes him in this round.
Winner: (3) TJ Oshie
(2) Evgeny Kuznetsov vs. (7) Braden Holtby
Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of the bigger personalities on the team, and he played a major role in the Cup win. He looked like one of the best players in the world in that 2018 run, but he has never gotten back to that level. He’s been good, but after seeing his ceiling, there’s a bit of disappointment that he has not been otherworldly. Maybe expectations are too high, but his work ethic has been questioned by some. Still, he’s a franchise cornerstone and a fun player to watch.
In terms of personality, Braden Holtby is on the opposite end of the spectrum, and that’s not an insult. Holtby’s calm, reserved temperament is what keeps him so locked in on the ice. He has struggled at times this season, and this may very well be his final season in Washington, but he will always be the first one to backstop this franchise to glory, winning back the starting job to do so. He’s faced a ton of adversity in his career, but has been amongst the best in the league at his peak. It’s a tough call on this one, but I’ll give Holtby the slightest edge to ‘upset’ Kuzy.
Winner: (7) Braden Holtby
(1) Juan Soto vs. (8) Ryan Zimmerman/(8) Howie Kendrick
In a surprisingly difficult decision for a top-seed first round match-up, I must first decide between my childhood fan favorite, Ryan Zimmerman, and the 2019 playoff hero, Howie Kendrick. Kendrick’s bat gave the Nats their first playoff series win in team history, and the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the World Series. Not to mention, he was the NLCS MVP. Zimmerman, on the other hand, is “Mr. National.” He was the team’s first draft pick when it moved to DC, and Zimmerman has been here every step of the way from the bottom-feeding early seasons to the Bryce Harper era disappointments, and finally the World Series championship. For the play-in game, it has to be Zim.
But that pits my childhood fan favorite against the new franchise face. Juan Soto played a massive role in the World Series run at just 20 years old (well, he turned 21 midway through the World Series). He can rake the ball like no one else, has incredible instincts at the plate, and has been improving his defense to become a more well-rounded player. He also has a massive personality that makes him so much fun to watch. At just 21, he’s already a World Series champion, and could very well make noise in the NL MVP race next season. This is just the beginning for Soto, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store. With apologies to Zim, Soto wins the match-up.
Winner: (1) Juan Soto
(4) Stephen Strasburg vs. (5) Trea Turner
While Zim has been there since the beginning, Stephen Strasburg has been there from the beginning of the new age. Stras came into the MLB as one of the most hyped prospects ever, and delivered in a legendary debut with a then-franchise record 14 strikeouts. We’re coming up on the 10 year anniversary of “Stras-mas,” and after a bumpy road, in which he’s dealt with injuries, and was labeled as a disappointment by some despite consistently being a top 10 pitcher in the National League, if not better, he was finally vindicated in October. He went 5-0 in the postseason to win World Series MVP. His arrival signaled a turnaround in the once-lowly franchise, and it was his play that secured a championship 10 years later.
Trea Turner is one of the team’s best positional players. He’s a solid hitter, performing well in the leadoff spot, and has wheels for legs. He’ll be relied on even more in 2020 after the departure of Anthony Rendon, and should be relied on as a core piece for the foreseeable future. As great as he is, Strasburg’s narrative has made him such a compelling story, and at 31, he still has potential for a late-career surge that could put him into the Hall of Fame conversation. A favorite of mine since he debuted nearly 10 years ago, Strasburg wins this round.
Winner: (4) Stephen Strasburg
(3) Sean Doolittle vs. (6) Adam Eaton
Sean Doolittle has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise embarrassing bullpen. Surprisingly, he has more of a social media following than guys like Turner, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton, but he’s as a good a relief pitcher as they come. He struggled at the end of the 2019 regular season, ceding the closing role to Daniel Hudson, but still came through big multiple times during the playoffs. He’s been a valuable piece for the past few years.
Eaton took awhile to take off in DC. The Nats traded their top pitching prospect, Lucas Giolito, in a package for Eaton’s services before the 2017 season, sacrificing a piece of the future in return for a solid two-way player (who was an All-Star the year before) to help them win now. An ACL tear in April 2017 ended his first season in Washington prematurely, and an ankle surgery hampered his 2018 season, giving him 118 games played across two seasons. Finally healthy in 2019, Eaton played 151 games and helped deliver DC a title. Neither are particularly big favorites of mine, but I give Eaton the edge because I like the fire he brings to the diamond every game.
Winner: (6) Adam Eaton
(2) Max Scherzer vs. (7) Victor Robles
Max Scherzer’s seven-year/$210 million contract that he signed with the team as a 30-year-old free agent in 2015 was considered one of the worst contracts at the time. Many believed the Nats were overpaying for an aging star that won his only Cy Young award two years before. Scherzer quickly proved them wrong. He has since been amongst the best pitchers in baseball, and has been a face of the franchise. I mentioned the fire Eaton brings to the field every game, but Scherzer dials that up by a million every time he takes the mound, earning him the moniker “Mad Max.” There is everything to like about a player like Scherzer, who is an absolute monster.
Robles, meanwhile, is just breaking on to the scene. He has brought stellar defense in center field, and decent hitting for an eighth/ninth batter. His bat sort of disappeared in the World Series, but following his first full season in the majors, there is a lot to be excited about for his development. He will be a valuable player for this franchise well after Scherzer finally hangs up the mitt, but there is no way that the most decorated player in Nationals history loses this early.
Winner: (2) Max Scherzer
I will go through the bottom half of the bracket in the next post, and eventually work my way to a Final Four and champion. Again, feel free to fill out the bracket for yourself and discover your own personal favorites.
(Cover Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove/ USA Today Sports)