It has been a strange and discomforting spring for Derek Jeter, one of a group of veteran Yankees strolling the grounds of Steinbrenner Field bearing a “precious goods, handle with care” sign at the same time he’s been held up as the symbol of what the doomsayers are predicting to be the demise of the Evil Empire.

He’s heard the questions, over and over, to the point where now they’ve become laughable to him. How can a 38-year-old shortstop, who was last seen being helped off the field with a broken ankle in the first game of the ALCS last October, possibly be expected to come back without any loss of range afield?

And how can the Yankees possibly be expected to make the playoffs for the 18th time in the last 19 seasons minus all that firepower from the departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez et al and, for the first 4-to-6 weeks of the season, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira?

“Everyone wants to bury us and the season hasn’t even started yet,” Jeter was saying the other day. “Everyone knows how tough our division always is, but can we please play the season first? I feel the same way I feel every year. Nothing’s changed. I would never want to be part of a team that I didn’t believe could win.”