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What's next for Josh Hamilton after relapse?
1:33 | MLB
What's next for Josh Hamilton after relapse?
Thursday February 26th, 2015

Josh Hamilton reportedly suffered a relapse in his sobriety a couple months back that involved the use of cocaine and he has since confessed to Major League Baseball, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.

The Angels outfielder was in New York to discuss his immediate future with the league on Wednesday and will be placed in MLB’s treatment program. However, having not failed an MLB drug test since 2004, Hamilton will be treated as a first-time offender, according to Heyman, which means he may not receive a suspension from MLB. Heyman reports that there has thus far been no word that Hamilton failed a drug test, though his treatment program will almost certainly delay the start of his season, which was already in doubt due to his recent shoulder surgery.

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This is not Hamilton’s first relapse since he initially got sober in late 2005 after nearly five years of serious drug and alcohol abuse. In August 2009, photographs of him partying at a bar that January with three women, none of them his wife, surfaced, after which Hamilton admitted that he had been drinking when the pictures were taken. He also admitted to having a few drinks in February 2012. In both cases, he quickly confessed to his team, then the Texas Rangers, and MLB, and because his only transgression was legal alcohol, he passed subsequent drug tests and did not incur any punishment from the team or the league.

As best we know, however, this is the first time Hamilton has relapsed with an illegal substance. Given that Hamilton failed multiple drug tests in 2003 and '04—resulting in a full-season ban in the latter year, which was ultimately extended into the '06 season due to Hamilton’s inability to get and stay sober in the interim—MLB is treating Hamilton very mercifully by qualifying him as a first-time offender. First-offense of a drug of abuse, according to MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, does not carry a requisite punishment. Hamilton may thus avoid a suspension in this case, but, as Heyman reported, Hamilton will be placed in the league’s treatment program. Per the program, it “may include any or all of the following: counseling, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment and follow-up testing.”

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That would make it doubtful that he is ready for Opening Day, especially considering that he had the acromioclavicular (A.C.) joint in his right shoulder repaired on Feb. 4, surgery from which the Angels said he would need six-to-eight weeks to recover. Eight weeks would be April 1, putting Hamilton on course to start Los Angeles' season opener on April 6, but that ignores the fact that he would have missed most of spring training rehabbing the joint. That schedule will now most likely be pushed further back by whatever treatment the league requires him to undergo.

What we cannot say with any degree of certainty right now is how much of the coming season Hamilton will ultimately miss due to this latest, most severe relapse. Still, there’s hope that he could return to the Angels in the first half of the season in greater physical and mental health than he might otherwise have been had he not confessed his relapse and tried to accelerate his return from the shoulder surgery.

That doesn’t mean that there’s much optimism to be had for his potential performance this coming season. Due to turn 34 in late May, Hamilton, a five-time All-Star and the 2010 AL MVP with Texas, has seen his power regress each of the last two seasons since signing a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels after the 2012 campaign. He has hit just .255/.316/.426 with 31 home runs in his first two seasons with the Angels combined. Given the abuse his body has taken on and off the field and his continued physical fragility (last year he missed nearly two months after tearing a thumb ligament in early April, and in September he suffered the injury that ultimately led to his shoulder surgery), there’s little reason to expect Hamilton to suddenly recapture his former glory. 

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In the short term, that could mean increased playing time for Collin CowgillC.J. Cron and Matt Joyce. The latter two were expected to platoon at designated hitter with Hamilton in leftfield, but Hamilton’s absence could result in Cowgill platooning in left with Joyce while Cron gets a larger share of the DH at-bats. That could then open at-bats at DH for a lefty such as first baseman Efren Navarro or even a non-roster invitee such as Ryan Wheeler or Roger Kieschnick.

That’s not a particularly inspiring formula for an Angels team that also has a gaping hole at second base in the wake of the December trade that sent Howie Kendrick to the Dodgers, but it’s not impossible to envision those players combining for something within hailing distance of Hamilton’s slash line from the last two years, particularly if they hold the platoon advantage in the bulk of their plate appearances.

Of course, such speculation about how the Angels will manage without Hamilton is premature given that we have no real idea how long he will be out. For now, the primary concern of both the team and Major League Baseball should be the health and sobriety of Josh Hamilton. Fortunately, from Heyman’s early reports, it seems that is indeed the case.

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