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.

Emerson Electric (NYSE: EMR), for example, has returned 22% since November 2009, and currently is rewarding investors with a 2.7% yield. Or consider Waste Management (NYSE: WM), which has climbed 22% since October 2008, atop a current 3.7% 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 165,000 members of our CAPS community:

Company

Yield

CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

Walgreen (NYSE: WAG)

2.5%

****

Sysco (NYSE: SYY)

3.2%

*****

Williams Cos. (NYSE: WMB)

2.4%

****

Progress Energy (NYSE: PGN)

5.8%

****

Windstream (NYSE: WIN)

8.7%

****

Source: Capital IQ (a division of Standard & Poor's), Yahoo! Finance, and CAPS as of Aug. 5.  

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 I immediately tune into when kicking the tires of a dividend payer -- dividend history, financial statements, and business stability.

For most of these companies, dividends have been a way of life. The dividend history at Walgreen, Sysco, Williams, and Progress can be measured in decades, and that's a good thing for investors. Windstream doesn't have quite the same track record, as the company was just created in 2006.

For payout stability and growth, however, we need to be a bit choosier. Natural gas company Williams has shown peppy dividend growth over the past five years, but that's primarily because it seriously chopped its payout back in 2003. Progress Energy has steadily grown its dividend for a very long time, but that growth has been at a tortoise's pace -- roughly 2% per year over the past decade. Telecommunications company Windstream's dividend may be the most disappointing in the growth department as its dividend has been flatlining.

Walgreen and Sysco have been another story entirely; growing their respective dividends 14% and 17% per year over the past decade, and both have been pretty consistent about bumping their payout every year.

Walgreen and Sysco also look the best from a financial perspective. Each has a strong balance sheet, safe interest coverage, and healthy cash flow. Williams' financials don't look quite as pristine, as it is burdened with a bunch of debt and cash flow hasn't always been sufficient to cover its capital spending, but that's not unusual for companies in Williams' industry. The same goes for Progress; utilities tend to have balance sheets more weighted down with debt, but also have the business stability to meet those obligations.

On the financial front, Windstream is once again at the bottom of the list. It has the excuse that it was laden with debt at birth, but it hasn't done much to bring that debt load down and its current debt-to-equity ratio is an "ugh"-inducing 1,034%. Windstream does, however, have strong free cash flow and that has allowed it to defend its dividend.

These are all fairly solid businesses, though investors may not be able to count on the same kind of year-to-year stability at Williams as they'll find from the others.

Going the distance
CAPS members have a yen for Windstream, and that's not all that surprising given the stock's hefty yield. However, it is easily at the bottom of my list when it's stacked against the stocks above. And at the top? Well, I happen to be a pretty big fan of food distributor Sysco, but I'm going to give the nod to Walgreen.

For a view on why Walgreen is a not-to-be-missed pick, let's take a look at what CAPS All-Star TMFDeej had to say last month about the company's opportunity:

... pharmacies will have two major trends putting wind in their sails for years to come:

1) an increase in the number of people who have health care coverage and in turn will go to their stores to buy stuff and

2) the introduction of a huge number of generic drugs over the next several years...which are significantly more profitable for pharmacies than brand name drugs.

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.

Is popularity a benefit when you're talking about dividends? If it is,this stock may be a big winner.

Sysco and Waste Management are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Emerson Electric, Sysco, and Waste Management are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. The Fool owns shares of Sysco. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Sysco, 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.