Sources: Hamilton faces suspension, though MLB trying to be lenient

Major League Baseball officials are weighing how to penalize Josh Hamilton for a breach of the sport’s drug policy while showing compassion for a former MVP who until recently had abided by the terms of his 2006 reinstatement, according to sources with knowledge of baseball’s thinking.

As a result, Hamilton is likely to be suspended for at least 25 games but less than a full season, sources say. Because of various complexities, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is not close to a decision. Moreover, the MLB Players Association, acting on Hamilton’s behalf, would appeal any penalty it deems to be too harsh.

Hamilton’s recent drug use, reported by CBS Sports to be cocaine, violated the terms of a treatment program to which the Angels outfielder agreed when he returned in June 2006 from a suspension of more than two years. The sport’s jointly bargained drug agreement lists specific penalties for such violations, but those guidelines are not easily applied in Hamilton’s complicated case.

The punishment for a player’s first failure to comply with a treatment program is a suspension of at least 15 but not more than 25 games. Yet, this is not Hamilton’s first offense. The suspension he served while in the minor leagues —€” from Feb. 18, 2004 through June 1, 2006 — was for a succession of violations.

Additionally, MLB classifies the 2004-06 suspension as a major-league violation, because the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had placed him on their 40-man roster before it began. So, Hamilton is now a repeat offender at the major-league level even though he did not debut with the Cincinnati Reds until 2007.

However, Manfred and other league officials have a favorable view of Hamilton’s efforts to remain sober, including compliance with MLB-mandated drug tests (three each week) for nearly nine years. He made five All-Star teams during that time, all while speaking honestly to baseball fans and the greater public about his struggle with addiction.

Although Hamilton approached MLB officials to inform them of his relapse, the fact that he was forthcoming will not be the reason for leniency; sources say MLB officials are of the view that Hamilton may have come to them once he believed a positive drug test was inevitable.

Manfred also is concerned about the peril in disciplining Hamilton too harshly, sources say. Hamilton’s greatest challenges in staying sober have come during periods when he’s been away from the game; prior to the reported drug use this offseason, Hamilton’s two alcohol relapses during his time with the Texas Rangers — which did not constitute violations of his treatment program — occurred while he was not playing.

A four-member treatment board, comprised of a physician and lawyer from both MLB and the MLB Players Association, is charged with determining whether a player has violated the terms of his treatment program.  But because of then-commissioner Bud Selig’s unique role in establishing the terms of Hamilton’s 2006 reinstatement, Manfred has particular discretion in determining his penalty now. Of note, no 40-man roster player has been suspended for a drug of abuse since Hamilton’s return nine years ago.

Beyond the number of games in Hamilton’s suspension, officials with MLB and the MLB Players Association must address whether he will enter a rehabilitation program and the possible financial ramifications of such a decision.

Baseball’s joint drug agreement does not say explicitly that a player must forfeit his salary while suspended for a drug of abuse. However, it does stipulate that players retain their full salary for the first 30 days they are absent from the club while undergoing inpatient or outpatient treatment; they receive half their salary for days 31 through 60, then no salary retention for days in treatment thereafter.

It’s unclear whether the time Hamilton spent away from the Devil Rays in 2004-06 would count toward that 60-day maximum; if so, he may forfeit his salary with the Angels while he is away this season. That is a significant consideration, as he’s scheduled to earn $25 million in 2015 —€” more than $4 million per month.

Hamilton has not reported to the Angels’ camp in Tempe, Ariz., yet this spring —€” and does not even have a locker in the home clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium. He was expected to be out until around Opening Day after right shoulder surgery; now he’s facing even greater uncertainty.