At around 10:15 p.m. Central time in Wisconsin on Dec. 1, Alex Binelas received a phone call from an unfamiliar number and let it roll to voicemail. A Brewers official asked the 21-year-old to call back.
Binelas immediately saw two possibilities. Perhaps it was a call to schedule a routine offseason drug test. Or, with minutes remaining before Major League Baseball owners initiated a work stoppage (and resulting transaction freeze) by locking out players, perhaps his life was about to change.
The return call was brief. Binelas, who less than five months earlier erupted in joy when drafted by his hometown team, was being traded to the Red Sox. A Sox official would follow up soon. No other details were shared.
Binelas hung up but was left with questions.
“I was just shocked,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what happened. ‘Is this for real? What? What’s going on?’
“Sure enough, we’re watching ESPN, and the blockbuster trade shows up and I find out who I was traded for and what went down. I didn’t find out in the call. I found out through Twitter and ESPN.”
Binelas had been traded, along with Jackie Bradley Jr. and fellow Brewers prospect David Hamilton, to the Red Sox for outfielder Hunter Renfroe. While Bradley is the most familiar name in the deal, Binelas is arguably the headliner for the Sox — a power-hitting corner infielder who had just completed a dominant pro debut after the Brewers took him in the third round of the draft.
Initially, he was left reeling. After Binelas was drafted by the Brewers on July 12, he made the 15-minute drive to pose for pictures outside of American Family Field. Being traded so early in his pro career was jarring.
“It sucked. I put my Brewers stuff in a box somewhere,” said Binelas. “Everyone always told me it’s a business. And it’s crazy how fast things can change. I’m sitting here talking to you as a Boston Red Sox … I’m just ready to move on, ready for this great opportunity.”
The trade represented the cherry atop a chaotic year of frequent reversals.
Binelas entered the year as one of the best-known draft prospects. As a freshman at Louisville in 2019, the lefthanded hitter forged a .291/.383/.612 line with 14 homers, displaying the sort of power and approach to ensure prominence in the 2021 draft. Some around Louisville started calling the bearded 6-foot-3-inch slugger “Leonidas” for his evocation of the Spartan leader (or, more precisely, the representation of the Agiad king played by actor Gerard Butler in “300″).
Though his freshman year ended with a wrist fracture suffered in the College World Series and his sophomore year had been wiped out first by a broken hamate bone and then by the pandemic, Binelas entered 2021 as a potential first-round pick. In its first mock draft, Baseball America had him going in the top 10.
But the return to the field following two injuries and the pandemic proved unsteady. Inflammation in his right hand (the one from which his hamate had been removed) prevented him from taking part in preseason scrimmages and left him rusty.
Through 16 games, he was 9 for 62 with a .145/.247/.274 line, one homer, and a 24.7 percent strikeout rate. While evaluators continued to flood Louisville to follow teammate Henry Davis — who ended up being taken No. 1 overall by the Pirates — Binelas’s stock sank.
“Baseball is my life and I wanted to play baseball at the next level and be a very high draft pick. And with the struggles, it does cross your mind [that your stock is slipping] … It was the worst baseball I’ve ever played. It was embarrassing,” said Binelas. “But I just kept coming in every day, got my work in knowing that things are going to change because I’ve worked too hard for something like this to stay.”
That outlook was validated. Binelas hit .308/.369/.782 with 18 homers with a more modest 21.0 percent strikeout rate over his final 34 games. His all-fields power became abundantly evident.
While questions remained about whether he’d have to move to first base full time or could provide additional value as at least a part-time third baseman, Binelas did enough to think he’d put himself back in position for an early selection.
He assembled with his family and close friends to watch Day 1 of the draft, spanning the first 36 picks. The giddy atmosphere transformed.
“I fully expected to go first day, be a first-day pick,” said Binelas. “The feelings that I felt after the first day of the draft concluded and my name wasn’t called, that sleepless night that I had, what I was feeling emotionally, mentally, it’s something that’ll stick with me forever throughout my baseball career, and it’s something that will fuel me to the day that I retire.”
When the group reconvened the next day, Binelas figured that he’d go in the second round. Again, that outlook went unfulfilled. Finally, in the third round, Binelas heard his name — with any disappointment about his unexpected slide quickly diminished by the identity of the team that picked him.
“We had no idea what was going on, why everyone was passing on me. And then we get a call from Milwaukee, and everything changed,” Binelas recalled. “All my friends and family are going crazy, [saying] it’s a blessing in disguise, you’re going to Milwaukee. It was awesome.”
Binelas set out to make good on the Brewers’ show of faith and to force the other 29 teams to lament their decision to pass on him. After Binelas signed, he followed a quick stop in the Arizona Complex League with a massive .314/.379/.636 line and nine homers in 29 games for the Low A Carolina Mudcats.
“I came in every day locked in 100 percent. I worked too hard in the offseason and too hard in practice to be giving away at-bats,” said Binelas. “I credit that to what happened with the draft, using that as fuel and motivation and not forgetting what happened. It just made it easier to come in every day locked in, ready to go.”
That performance restored luster to Binelas, suggesting that he had the potential not just to be an all-or-nothing masher but also someone with more well-rounded ability as a hitter. (Binelas describes himself as someone whose goal is to “hit the ball very hard” on a line or in the air.) The evidence of six months — from April at Louisville through September in pro ball — had been enough to make him an attractive trade target for the Red Sox.
As jarring as it was to be traded by his hometown team, Binelas recognizes the other side of the equation.
“It’s a great opportunity for someone that showed that they really want me. I’m thankful for that. It’s exciting,” said Binelas. “It’s been a crazy offseason, crazy last couple of weeks. But Boston is a great place and the fan base is unreal.”
“And definitely,” he added, “the Christmas [shopping] got a little easier knowing that nobody [in his Wisconsin family] will have any Boston stuff.”