Willis optimistic about Marlins' future

GUTHRIE, Okla. -- At the age of 24, Dontrelle Willis isn't even thinking about whether he'll be able to chase down Warren Spahn's 363 wins -- the most by a lefty in the major leagues.

"I can't even fathom that number -- just being able to play baseball and understand how hard it is to win one game," Willis told The Associated Press on Thursday after accepting the Warren Spahn Award. "To win 300-plus games is remarkable. To win 200-plus games is remarkable. That's a big number."

In a point system based on wins, ERA and strikeouts, Willis edged out Houston's Andy Pettitte for the award given annually to baseball's top left-hander. Past winners include Randy Johnson (1999-2002), Pettitte (2003) and Johan Santana (2004).

Willis, who was 22-10 for the Florida Marlins last season, led all lefties in wins. His 2.63 ERA was second to Santana and his 170 strikeouts ranked fifth.

In his three-year career, Willis is 46-27 with a 3.27 ERA. He has just over one-eighth of the wins Spahn, a native Oklahoman, had in his 21 seasons.

"I don't even know what I'm right now at as far as wins. I can't even tell you. I've still got 300 to go," Willis said. "You have to be very fortunate and very lucky and very blessed to stay healthy to be able to have a chance to go out there and do those type of things. I need all the help and luck to be on my side."

On Monday, Willis avoided salary arbitration by agreeing to a $4.35 million, one-year contract with the Marlins. He made only $378,500 last year but says the raise won't affect him.

"I don't feel any pressure. I'm going to continue to do what I do as far as my work ethic and my training for me to get prepared for the season," Willis said. "That doesn't dictate anything."

Willis is one of few Marlins who will return this season as the team dramatically cut payroll in the offseason. Gone are Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Luis Castillo, Jeff Conine, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota.

"I'm going to go in there being the same guy. I'm not going to let things around me dictate how I'm going to approach the game," Willis said.

"That's what the guys that got traded and left said: 'Continue to do what you know how to do, and don't let us down. Don't change just because the circumstances have changed. Keep doing what you're good at, keep working hard, keep smiling and keep having fun,'" he said.

Young slugger Miguel Cabrera, who hit 33 homers last season, will also be back. The others have been replaced with names like Wes Helms, Miguel Olivo, Brian Moehler, Pokey Reese, Joe Borowski and -- as Willis put it -- "a lot of younger guys."

Willis was one of those younger players when he came up in 2003 and was the rookie of the year as the Marlins won the World Series. So, can any of the Marlins' newcomers follow in his footsteps?

"It doesn't matter what I think. It just matters if they feel that way," Willis said. "If they feel that they deserve to play baseball at the highest level and they want to go out there and get it, it doesn't matter what I think.

"I know when I came up, me and Miguel, we felt like if we can do what we need to do and learn, we can play baseball at any level, and that builds confidence. Hopefully, they come in feeling the same way," he said.

Willis certainly isn't giving up on his young club. After all, the Marlins had a similar fire sale after their 1997 World Series win and were back winning the title six years later.

"I'm very optimistic, most definitely. I'm very optimistic. I'm very appreciative of this organization taking a chance on a young 21-year-old and I'll always hold onto that," Willis said.

"I always feel that we've got a chance to win a game until the game's over. I'm definitely going to feel confident. And when the season starts, we're all going to be in first place," he said.