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12/15/11 6:20 PM EST

Phillies find lefty reliever in veteran Willis

Team expects former starter to thrive coming out of bullpen

PHILADELPHIA -- Dontrelle Willis has one of the biggest smiles in baseball, and he smiled widely Thursday evening at Citizens Bank Park.

"I'm pretty excited," he said.

Willis signed a one-year, $850,000 contract with the Phillies, and incentives could push the deal to more than $1 million. An accomplished hitter, he could make an additional $25,000 with 30 plate appearances.

But Willis is not only excited to pitch in the Phils' bullpen, he is excited about possibly being teammates with his old neighborhood friend, Jimmy Rollins. Rollins and Willis grew up in the same neighborhood and attended Encinal High School in Alameda, Calif., although they didn't attend at the same time.

"I talk to him pretty often," Willis said of Rollins. "He's fired up. He's definitely fired up. We need to sign him, too. We got the little stuff out of the way, so we have to get to the big stuff and get the big guy back."

Rollins, 33, is a free agent. It seems more likely than not that he will re-sign with Philadelphia, although he is looking for more than the Phillies have offered. But with few options remaining, most in baseball believe the two parties eventually will come to an agreement.

Willis, 29, would love that.

"Growing up, shagging for him, it's pretty surreal to come full circle," Willis said. "I think our families are more excited for this than we are. But God is good. I'm trying to press Ruben [Amaro Jr.] to get that deal done so I can borrow some money from [Jimmy]."

Willis has been a starter most of his career, but about the only way he would start in 2012 would be if there were multiple injuries in the rotation. Willis' future in Philadelphia is in the bullpen, possibly as a left-handed specialist.

Left-handers hit .127/.169/.200 against him in 55 at-bats last season.

"Me and Ruben talked, and the situation, just in case -- the ability to start -- that if a couple of starters go down, I could be a starter," Willis said. "But I really don't care. Wherever they need me, whatever role -- I heard someone talking about pinch-hitting -- so whatever role. With all of these starters going nine and 10 innings, I'm not sure I'll get the chance to do that. But I just want to get into the best shape I can be, and I feel great. I'm not going to rock the boat; I just want to get on."

Willis has struggled for several seasons in the big leagues, bouncing from the Marlins to the Tigers, Giants, D-backs and Reds. He has had a big problem throwing strikes, but Willis thinks that issue can be put behind him.

Maybe moving to the bullpen will help.

"It's not so much being reborn," Willis said. "Ask me in September. ... I have to step back and have fun. Sometimes in the career, you often get into a grind where you have to do this and you have to do that. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to go out there and compete."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.