After spending much of the past year at a four-star rank, Plains Exploration & Production (NYSE: PXP) has impressed enough top-performing members of our 160,000-strong Motley Fool CAPS community to climb all the way up to five stars. With 366 members giving their opinion on the independent oil and gas company, there's plenty of analysis and commentary explaining the recent optimism.

With Plains' recent big discoveries and partnerships in play with other strong industry players, more CAPS members are seeing improved prospects for good returns from the company. Plains reported that it returned to the black in the fourth quarter, with revenue increasing 12%, and it sees potential for some of its projects to provide significant future production and reserve growth. The company also laid out the goal of doubling its production and reserves by 2014.

Peer Encana (NYSE: ECA) has reported huge production increases in the Haynesville Shale over the last year, boding well for Plains Exploration. Plains has seen strong drilling results in the area, where it has a joint venture with Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK). On the production front, Plains Exploration also reported a big increase and expects further increases this year, as it looks to continue to develop its onshore California properties, which is its largest asset area and currently holds the most proved reserves.

Some recent discoveries made with partners in the Gulf of Mexico also have investors more bullish. The Davy Jones prospect, in conjunction with partners McMoRan Exploration (NYSE: MMR) and Energy XXI (Nasdaq: EXXI), could  contain trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. And the recent Lucius discovery with partners Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) and Mariner Energy (NYSE: ME) has been a pleasant surprise for investors as well. Plains has racked up substantially more debt in its pursuit of returns, but with growing reserves and some potentially big projects, many CAPS members like the company's strategy.

Do you think Plains Exploration & Production deserves its improved status? Add your thoughts in the comments box below on this page, or head over to CAPS to rate the company and check out all the information and opinions the community offers, absolutely free.

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Fool contributor Dave Mock has upgraded his canasta aptitude from a tough challenge to a nemesis to be feared. He owns no shares of companies mentioned here. Chesapeake Energy is an Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. The Fool's disclosure policy still hasn't washed the cheek kissed by Davy Jones.