LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Like many children from his native Panama, Christian Bethancourt spent the early portion of his youth playing soccer. But when his mother told him he could play just one sport, Bethancourt chose to chase a dream that could set him apart from his friends, who aspired to become the next Pele.
"Soccer is the No. 1 sport in Panama," Bethancourt, 22, said, "but it's not like everyone who plays it is going to be successful. There are not many guys from Panama playing professional baseball. But if you look at soccer, there are thousands of [Panamanians] playing, but only four of them are in the premier leagues. There's less chance of you [being] successful in soccer than baseball, so that is why I decided to play baseball."
Bethancourt made his decision shortly after experiencing the thrill of reaching the semifinals of the international bracket of the 2004 Little League World Series. Ten years later he has established himself as one of baseball's top catching prospects and positioned himself to realize his dream of becoming one of the few from his native country to become an established Major League star.
"Armwise he's in a league of his own," backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "Defensively, he has a chance to be in a league of his own. He has a chance to be that good. You see him growing, taking his batting practice, the power is there. Now it's just a matter of him putting it all in his mind and being able to be consistent on a daily basis."
Bethancourt got a taste of the big leagues when he spent the final two weeks of the 2013 regular season with the Braves. Becoming one of seven Panamanians to appear in the Majors in 2013 and a pinch-hit at-bat in the season finale gave him even more reason to enter this season hungering for the chance to return to the roster.
With Evan Gattis and Laird positioned to serve as the primary catchers, Bethancourt will likely begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett. Another stint in the Minors will give him a chance to extend the offensive promise he started to show when he hit .277 with 12 home runs and a .746 OPS in 90 games with Double-A Mississippi.
Although those are not eye-popping stats, they showed a marked improvement compared with where he was a year earlier, when he hit .243 with two home runs and a .566 OPS in 71 games with Mississippi. His disappointing 2012 season created doubts about his offensive potential, the phase of his game that has been most heavily critiqued throughout his professional career.
"Defensively, it has always been there for me," he said. "Every year I try to get better offensively. Last year, I think, was one of those seasons that makes you feel better and that you're finally doing something right."
Blessed with quick feet and an athletic, 6-foot-2 frame, Bethancourt possesses a rocket arm that has always impressed talent evaluators and the likes of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove catcher who praised Bethancourt after timing one of his throws to second base at well-above-average 1.75 seconds.
Bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who spent 11 seasons in the Majors as a catcher, compares Bethancourt with Benito Santiago, who won three Gold Glove Awards and four Silver Slugger Awards during his distinguished career.
"Defensively, [Bethancourt] is going to be one of the best in the big leagues," Perez said. They said [Santiago] couldn't hit, and then all of a sudden, he became one of the best hitters in baseball."
As Bethancourt prepares to spend at least a portion of this season at the Minor League level, he gains inspiration from Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, a fellow native of Panama who did not join the professional ranks until he was 21 and then waited six years to get his first call to the Majors.
With Gattis preparing for just his second season with the Braves, there is reason to wonder when Bethancourt might get his chance to prove he is ready to serve as the organization's catcher of the future.
But for now he can only patiently await the opportunity to achieve the ultimate goal he set more than a decade ago, when he determined he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Mariano Rivera, Rod Carew and the select few from Panama who have proven successful at baseball's highest level.
"I'm just here to show what I can do, play baseball," he said. "That is what I've been doing my whole life. I plan to play it for a long time. Last year I wasn't going to worry about getting to the big leagues. I was going to worry about getting my job done and have a consistent season. Whenever I get the call, I'll be ready."