The New York Yankees of the '50s and the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Cowboys of the '90s had one crucial element in common: consistent excellence in their organizations and performance. That's a rare accomplishment, but if you think it could never occur in your portfolio, think again. Carefully chosen dividend-paying stocks could be your key to superstar returns.

Build the next investing dynasty
These long-haul outperformers can help you build your fortune, as studies from investing gurus such as Jeremy Siegel have shown time and time again. Finding them is the mission of our Motley Fool Income Investor service.

California Water Services, for example, has returned 49% since September 2003, and it is currently rewarding investors with a 3.3% yield. Or consider National Grid, which has returned 62% since July 2005, atop a current 4.3% yield. While these stocks happen to be Income Investor recommendations, you don't need to be a subscriber to get these great gains.

Identify new talent
With the help of Motley Fool CAPS, we'll search for the best dividend-paying stocks around. Here are several dividend picks that have also earned high ratings from the 105,000-plus members of our CAPS community:



CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Chevron (NYSE:CVX)



Nordic American Tanker Shipping (NYSE:NAT)



Sunoco (NYSE:SUN)



Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD)



Baytex Energy Trust (NYSE:BTE)



Sources: Capital IQ, Yahoo! Finance, and CAPS as of June 5.

Any one of these quality companies would add some dividend excellence to your portfolio, but I thought I'd kick off further research with a closer look at Sunoco.

Dependable dividends
As we know, not all dividend payers and dividend payouts are created equal. For that reason, it's important to make sure that the dividend you're expecting isn't about to take an extended vacation with the dodo bird. To figure this out, I like to look at the prospects for the company's business, the company's history of paying dividends, and the sustainability of the current dividend.

Though there's been a lot of hullabaloo over high gas prices lately, most of the major refiners in the U.S. -- like Sunoco, Valero (NYSE:VLO), and Western Refining (NYSE:WNR) -- have been left out in the cold. As oil prices have run up at a breathtaking pace, the crack spreads that these refiners depend on have been severely crunched. That has peeled as much as 40% off of Sunoco's stock price over the past year and has done similar -- or worse -- damage to the others.

Despite these recent troubles, I think the refiners as a group are worth a second look. In a cyclical business like this, there are going to be periods when margins dive and financial results are affected, but the resulting pessimism can often serve up good buying opportunities.

When considering the dividends, Sunoco may not have a perfect history -- it's had its share of dividend stagnation -- but in recent years, it has been nicely ratcheting up its payout. A look at Sunoco's cash flow statement shows that it's been producing far more cash than it needs to pay the dividend, and like a lot of other cash-rich companies, it has been using some of that extra dough to buy back its own shares.

On CAPS, the diminutive refining margins have kept Sunoco from getting bumped up to a perfect five-star rating, but the current 11-to-1 bull-to-bear ratio is certainly nothing to sneeze at. NetscribeEnergy, a top-ranked CAPS player, is positive on Sunoco and shared some thoughts on the company's long-term picture back in April of last year. Here's an excerpt:

Sunoco continues to adopt its cost cutting, two-folded strategy i.e. focusing both its refining and marketing operations in Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. and thus reducing transportation costs, and selling products through its retail outlets at competitive prices. Further, the company has delayed some of its capital-intensive, long-hour projects to avoid cost overruns due to currently higher construction and engineering costs. With capacity expansion projects, positive industry synergies, cost-cutting strategies and highest dividend payer among independent refiners, Sunoco to remain attractive.

You can check out who else has been bullish on Sunoco, as well as chime in with your own thoughts, by heading over to CAPS. You may also want to check out a few of the other top-rated dividend payers above while you're there.

Dividend stocks could help you transform your portfolio from the flash-in-the-pan Florida Marlins into the dependable New York Yankees. And if you hate the Yankees, it's probably because they're so darn good, so darn often.

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