I sure hope Kelly Shoppach will be staying with us in 2012. I really enjoyed his catching expertise, knowledge of the game and his presence. Yes, his hitting is not great, but when we needed him, he came through with shining colors. Will he likely be with us in 2012?
--Marcia K., New Port Richey, Fla.

Whether Shoppach is back with the team in 2012 or not, I believe he displayed a lot of professionalism in September for the way he handled himself. Joe Maddon told reporters early in the month that most of the catching duties for the remainder of the season would fall to John Jaso and Jose Lobaton, which meant Shoppach was essentially left out in the cold. Shoppach remained composed, did not check out for the season, and when Jaso and Lobaton struggled, he found himself back in the mix.

Shoppach's play behind the plate definitely proved to be a positive factor in the team's stretch run. Now, will he be back in 2012? Ultimately, that will come down to dollars and cents. Do the Rays want to exercise their team option that would pay Shoppach $3.2 million to return, or will they buy him out for $300,000? There also is the chance that the Rays could buy him out and re-sign him. Catching is a problem area for the Rays, so I would imagine, with the way Shoppach finished the season, will make the club give strong consideration to bringing him back.

For the second time in the playoffs, as well as the previous two seasons, the Rays' offense has been a major problem. Might it not be time to look at Derek Shelton as perhaps not being the right hitting coach for this team? As Maddon has been able to get the very best from our boys, such has not been the case with Mr. Shelton. Same approach, same results: One, two, three and out. Your thoughts?
-- Mike C., New York

I understand the logic of your argument -- a hitting coach on a team that isn't real dangerous offensively needs to go -- but I believe a hitting coach's duties and what should be expected from him are different.

First, the team itself is not an overly talented offensive team, which I believe is primarily due to the relative youth of the squad. So, I don't think the hitting coach is responsible for not having a lot of advanced offensive talent at this point. He can only work with what he is given.

Instead, I watch how he patiently works with each individual player and tries to get them to move from Point A to Point B. For example, late in the season, Sean Rodriguez explained to me how he had been working with Shelton on a trigger point since Spring Training, and slowly but surely they were making some progress, which was seen in the quality of the contact he began to make. In essence, I believe it's more of a personal relationship between the hitting coach and the players he works with -- trying to get them to feel right at the plate.

Shelton appears to have that kind of relationship with the players. If he did not, I would likely be on your side of the fence.

Have a question about the Rays?
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With everyone calling 2011 the "Bridge Year", what's going to be so different about 2012? I know pitching is our strongest link, but what is going to be our solution offensively to get more run support to put together bigger wins for October 2012?
-- Tiffany M., Citrus Spring, Fla.

Obviously that question is going to be difficult to answer until we know who will be on the team in 2012.

Will B.J. Upton, Casey Kotchman, and Johnny Damon be back? We probably won't know the answer to that question for several months. We do know that the young players should be back. Evan Longoria will be in the middle of the lineup, and the Rays pretty much know what they have with the All-Star third baseman, and the same goes for Ben Zobrist, who had a really nice season in 2011. After that, the Rays could be looking at youngsters at a lot of different positions.

Matt Joyce seems to be coming along offensively, and Desmond Jennings' offense appears like it will play in the Major Leagues. I have to believe that the Rays will get more offense out of Rodriguez, Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson in 2012 -- each of them have shown flashes of what they can be if they can just develop more consistency. After fleshing it all out, I believe the offense should be better just by the maturation process alone. But again, let's wait and see what the roster looks like before going all in on that call.

Should the Rays pick up their option on James Shields so their pitching rotation will be Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and either Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, or Wade Davis? Then you could trade Niemann or Davis and get a decent prospect out of it, and then have Niemann or Davis with Cobb as your long-range bullpen guy.
-- Parker S., Sarasota, Fla.

I do believe the Rays will want to re-sign Shields based on his ability, leadership and durability -- 200-plus innings every season is tough to replace. And relatively speaking, the $7 million club option the Rays hold for Shields in 2012 is not a lot when compared to what other pitchers in the Major Leagues are getting for a lot less in results.

Meanwhile, the scenarios you suggest just aren't reality. Right now, the Rays feel as though the depth of their organization is rooted in their starting pitching. That depth appears to be seven to nine deep when you include Alex Torres and Chris Archer. That's a great situation to be in, so I wouldn't look for the Rays to use any of the pitchers you mentioned as middle or long relief. However, if everyone in the group remains healthy there always is a chance that a member of the group could be converted to a late-inning reliever. But I believe the odds of that happening are remote.