Josh Hamilton could become a distraction for Angels if he returns

A decision from MLB concerning Josh Hamilton is expected before the Angels' April 6 season opener at Seattle

Josh Hamilton is out of sight but not out of mind, the questions about the outfielder's status — if or when he will return, and how he might fit in if he does — hovering over the Angels like a cloud.

Hamilton hasn't been with the team all spring. At the start, the Angels said he was in Houston, rehabilitating from surgery performed Feb. 4 on his right shoulder.

It was later revealed that Hamilton had met with Major League Baseball officials in New York because of a relapse he suffered in his battle with substance abuse.

Hamilton, 33, has a well-chronicled addiction to cocaine and alcohol, which he has acknowledged began more than a decade ago during his early years in professional baseball.

A four-member treatment board composed of doctors and lawyers appointed by MLB and the players' union will determine whether Hamilton violated the joint drug agreement and a course of treatment, with an arbitrator breaking any ties.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he would determine the length of any suspension. A decision is expected before the Angels' April 6 season opener at Seattle.

The Hamilton story has done little to disrupt a relatively peaceful and controversy-free camp for the Angels. Hamilton was never issued a locker in the team's Tempe Diablo Stadium clubhouse.

But that will change should he return, and how the club and player handle the attention surrounding any reunion and his integration into the lineup could affect the team both on and off the field.

"It could affect team chemistry," Angels closer Huston Street said. "I'll be interested to see how that situation works itself out, because it's a delicate situation, a delicate balance. We're all pulling for Josh for his life, his family, his children. But it's really going to be up to him to make sure he doesn't become a distraction."

Hamilton's addictions led to a three-year suspension from baseball from 2004-2006. He bounced back to become a five-time All-Star and 2010 American League most valuable player with the Texas Rangers, but he has done little to endear himself to Angels fans.

Signed to a five-year, $125-million contract before the 2013 season, Hamilton responded by batting .250 with 21 home runs, 79 runs batted in and 158 strikeouts in his first season.

Last season, while battling injuries, he hit .263 with 10 homers, 44 RBIs and 108 strikeouts in 89 games, sitting out most of September because of a shoulder injury and looking completely lost in the playoffs, going 0 for 13 in a division series sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals.

However, Hamilton is a popular player in the Angels clubhouse.

"All the players love Josh — he's a lovable guy," said pitcher C.J. Wilson, who was also a teammate of Hamilton's in Texas. "That's why a lot of people across the country feel for him when he goes through ups and downs.

"In very rare instances, a player is a distraction, but Josh is not a distraction by himself. The media distracts you because that's their job, to ask questions and to write stories and stuff like that. We shouldn't even be reading anything. All we should be thinking about is playing today's game."

Hamilton's return could pose a bigger challenge for Manager Mike Scioscia and General Manager Jerry Dipoto than his teammates.

Matt Joyce and Collin Cowgill are expected to split time in left field in Hamilton's absence, and Joyce and C.J. Cron probably will share the designated hitter spot.

Joyce was a solid if not spectacular hitter in Tampa Bay for five years, and Cowgill, a superior defender, has played well this spring. Cron has been one of the team's best hitters in camp, with a . 407 average, two homers, eight doubles, two triples and 10 RBIs in 19 games.

What if all three are performing well and the Angels are winning when Hamilton returns? And what if Hamilton, who probably will have a lengthy minor league rehabilitation assignment before joining the Angels, struggles to retain his form?

Will the Angels stick with a formula that is working or feel pressured to play Hamilton — even if he's dragging the team down — because of his $25-million-per-season salary?

Dipoto would not even entertain the question when asked about Hamilton.

"I'm not going to go into Josh at all," Dipoto said. "We're too close to opening day, and I want to focus on this team. We'll address [Hamilton] at the appropriate time."

Scioscia rarely likes to think too far ahead, and he refused to speculate on how a Hamilton return would affect the team.

"We're all waiting for direction, and this is absolutely something you have to take one step at a time," Scioscia said. "We're not going to get too far ahead of ourselves."

It's a touchy subject, one that has turned Hamilton into the elephant in the room, even though he hasn't been in the locker room all spring.

"I'll tell you one thing — in that situation, I'm going to keep my mouth shut and let them make the decision," Street said. "That's the simplest way to approach it. That is why my title is player."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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