The New York Yankees of the '50s and the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Cowboys of the '90s have 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 our Motley Fool Income Investor service's mission.

Heinz (NYSE: HNZ), for example, has returned 45% since August 2004, and currently is rewarding investors with a 3.6% yield. Or consider ONEOK Partners (NYSE: OKS), which has climbed 21% since January 2008, atop a current 6.7% 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 160,000 members of our CAPS community:

Company

Yield

CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM)

2.5%

****

American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO)

2.4%

****

Aflac (NYSE: AFL)

2.2%

****

3M (NYSE: MMM)

2.5%

****

Raytheon (NYSE: RTN)

2.3%

****

Source: Capital IQ (a division of Standard & Poor's), Yahoo! Finance, and CAPS. 

Let's take a closer look at how these dividend payers stack up.

Does my dividend have a glass jaw?
The last thing we want in a dividend-paying company is the risk that the company will fall off a cliff and have to pull back its dividend. This usually ends up being a double whammy because not only do you lose your dividend payout, but many of the dividend-loving investors who own the stock will run for the hills causing the stock price to fall.

With that in mind, there are three places that I immediately tune into when kicking the tires of a dividend payer -- dividend history, financial statements, and business stability.

Today's group contains some stocks with truly impressive dividend histories. Exxon, Aflac, and 3M are all serious dividend payers with long, stable histories of not only paying their shareholders, but also growing that payout. Raytheon ends up in a slightly lower tier. Though it sports a long history of making sure its shareholders get their share, it did have a drought between 1996 and 2004 when it didn't grow its payout.

When it comes to American Eagle, we don't have too much of a history to work from. The company has only had a dividend since late 2004 and has already committed a foul by opting to keep the payout unchanged between 2007 and 2010.

None of these companies have balance sheets that would give investors too many worry lines. Exxon and Raytheon are both in a net cash position -- that is, they have more cash than debt -- while American Eagle's balance sheet sports $700 million in cash versus just $30 million in debt.

Meanwhile, all of these companies also produce copious amounts of cash, which is exactly what we need to see to ensure that dividends will not only be paid, but grow. Exxon, 3M, and Raytheon all produce so much cash that they have a history of sinking bucketfuls of extra cash into buying back shares.

Finally, turning to business stability, we don't have any wildly cyclical companies in this group. While that doesn't mean that business cycles won't take their toll, it does mean that we should be able to expect this group to stay solidly profitable through most recessions. Raytheon may be the one exception. Because the company is driven more by government defense spending than normal business cycles, Raytheon may actually be able to grow right on through a recession, even as the other companies listed here see their profits sliding.

Going the distance
But if I were going to pick one stock out of these five, it would have to be ExxonMobil. Yes, yes, I know. What a boring pick. But the way I see it, if I want excitement I'll pick up a Stephen King novel or put on a Quentin Tarantino movie. When it comes to investments, boring is just fine as long as it's boring and profitable, which is what we get with Exxon.

While Exxon is one star short of a perfect five-star CAPS rating, nearly 6,800 CAPS members have given the stock a thumbs-up. (The thumbs-down camp has 468 members.) CAPS All-Star edwjm offered this pitch when he joined the Exxon bulls back in November:

At the current price, [Exxon] has a p/e of 16.62 and pays a divident of 2.3%. The company is awash with cash and will not be going out of business anytime soon. Despite all the hype about the evils of fossil fuels, they will continue to be a primary source of energy for a long time to come.

Get into the action
You can check out who else has been bullish on these stocks, as well as chime in with your own thoughts by heading over to CAPS.

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.

What's better than an outperformer? An outperformer that nobody knows about yet!

3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Aflac is a Stock Advisor pick. Heinz and ONEOK Partners are Income Investor choices. 

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of 3M, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. You can check out the stocks he's keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio or connect with him on Twitter @KoppTheFool. The Fool's disclosure policy pays its dividends in reliability.