SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The young relievers entered their ninth month of baseball together - neighbors in Florida, roommates first in Berks County and now Arizona - weary from the trials of a grueling season.
Victor Arano looked tired; he had traveled to Mexico earlier this month for the birth of his son. Miguel Nunez, who was married in Washington during a summer off day on the Eastern League calendar, shook his head after being pelted by a ball while shagging batting-practice flies.
They had accomplished much in 2016. It was almost time to head home. And, still, one constant remained: Both Arano and Nunez threw a baseball hard.
"I know it's a long year," said Nunez, a hulking 6-foot-6 Dominican righthander. "But that's the sport that I love. I am just enjoying this time."
The Phillies sent Arano, Nunez, and local lefty Jeff Singer to the Arizona Fall League, a showcase for quality prospects, because they are promising bullpen arms. The game has placed a premium on hard-throwing relievers. They are the most fickle of baseball players, often hard to explain and predict.
But, after 2016, the Phillies have reasons to be encouraged by all three of the arms here with the Scottsdale Scorpions.
Arano, who will turn 22 in February, has the highest upside. He posted a 2.26 ERA in 79 2/3 innings between high-A Clearwater and double-A Reading. He struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings and walked just 2.1 per nine. He throws his fastball 95 mph and can top at 98. Acquired from Los Angeles in an August 2014 waiver deal for Roberto Hernandez, he was a starter until this season.
He has thrived in the new role. He pitched more than an inning in 31 of his 46 appearances.
"He maintains a certain mentality, a very aggressive mentality, but he doesn't go too much one way or the other," said Steve Schrenk, the pitching coach at Reading who followed the pitchers to Scottsdale. "It's very level, the way he goes about it. And he has the stuff to do it, on top of that.
"I definitely see him at the back end of a bullpen somewhere. Hopefully ours. He has good stuff to do it. We'll see what happens and how he progresses. But I think he could go pretty quickly if he keeps doing what he's doing."
Nunez, 24, signed in 2010 as a 17-year-old from the Dominican and was a starter in the system until being shifted in 2015 to the bullpen. He is considered more erratic than Arano; Nunez fanned 10.4 per nine innings but walked 4.6. He spent most of 2016 in Reading's bullpen with a 3.13 ERA in 54 2/3 innings. The Phillies re-signed him to a minor-league deal after the season, but if the Phillies do not add Nunez to the 40-man roster by Friday, he is eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft.
So his time in Arizona is an audition for 30 teams. Nunez has allowed two runs in nine innings with six strikeouts and four walks. Schrenk said Nunez worked all season on a splitter, which the Phillies hope can emerge as a strikeout pitch.
"He's a big, strong, durable guy," Schrenk said. "He never said he couldn't throw. That's what you want out of the bullpen."
And then there is Singer, 23, one of the more unexpected developments of the organization. The Holy Cross High graduate pitched at Rutgers-Camden, a Division III school, and joined the independent Camden Riversharks after not being selected in the 40-round draft. The Phillies signed him in October 2015, tinkered with his mechanics, and discovered a 6-foot lefthanded pitcher who could spot a fastball that averaged 94 mph and topped at 97.
"He's not a big guy," Schrenk said. "He has a little Billy Wagner in him. It's neat to see. It's really neat. I have enjoyed it."
Singer pitched at three levels with a 1.79 ERA in 2016 and earned the invitation to Arizona because the Phillies wanted to test him. He did not allow a run in his first eight appearances in the Arizona Fall League. He has a 1.54 ERA in 112/3 innings with 10 strikeouts and five walks.
"There were nerves coming into it, playing with top-10-round guys," Singer said. "But, especially with how I'm playing, I know I belong here. With how I played this season, moving up so much, I know I belong."
The development of a few relievers will not hasten the rebuilding, but the three pitchers serve as success stories in a minor-league system full of them. Singer could start 2017 at Reading. Arano and Nunez are closer. The majors are within reach.
"I feel close to being a big-leaguer," Arano said. "I know I can do the job I see the other pitchers in the big leagues do. I'm working hard to pitch next year in the big leagues."
Updates on three
1. Mitch Walding: He was an overslot draft bonus signing in 2011, and things started to click for the 24-year-old third baseman in 2016. He's hitting .302 with an .875 OPS in 53 fall-league at-bats. But the 22 strikeouts will scare scouts. Walding, Rule 5 eligible, will be unprotected.
2. Brock Stassi: He was erroneously reported in this space last week to be a minor-league free agent. The coaching staff was impressed with Stassi's performance last spring, and a .444 on-base percentage in 28 Dominican winter-ball games will help his cause. He could be a cheap answer to a first-base platoon with Tommy Joseph.
3. Bryan Minniti: The newest Phillies executive is highly respected in baseball circles. The 36-year-old former mathematics major at the University of Pittsburgh is expected to have a focus on the team's international operations.